A psychologist poised to take on the world

“How we can support people at a community or systems level—as opposed to beating against this wall, individual by individual?”

Mental Health

The Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health has provided more than 1,000 scholarships to American Indian scholars. This interview with Dr. Kyle Hill, a psychologist of Ojibwe, Dakota, and Lakota origin, is the first in a series of interviews with Native scholars working to improve health in tribal communities across North America.

Improving behavioral health in the northern woodlands of Minnesota  

I’m a behavioral health clinical director for the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, a band of Ojibwe people in Northeastern Minnesota, and a community of about 4,500 people. I primarily do individual therapy and clinical and psychological assessments, and I supervise other clinicians in our department. We also have a clinic in Duluth, where we serve a diverse urban Indian population.

You need to make yourself present in the community in order for people to trust you, as a health provider and as a community member. It takes a different level of commitment that we’re not used to as professionals. We are used to going to work and going home. You have to serve in a number of capacities that you’re not trained in, but it’s really rewarding.

To understand behavioral health, stop focusing on individuals

The focus on the individual health profile is archaic and antiquated, especially in Native communities. Working in public health can hopefully shift that paradigm to look more at community and population health. We need to put our money here and work toward establishing protective factors at family and community levels. How can we support people at a community or systems level as opposed to trying to continuously beat against this wall individual by individual? We know that individuals live in communities and families, so those are the kinds of systems we want to impress change upon.

How I apply public health training

Things were not clicking so much when I graduated with my PhD in clinical psychology—Hopkins training helped me connect the dots and develop a community-based forum to support interventions. My experience at the Center [Dr. Hill is an associate faculty member] has really helped me cultivate this belief or understanding of behavioral and mental health from a public health perspective. It coincides with Obijwe /Anishinaabe traditions and likely many other Indigenous values and traditions of health and well-being. The disproportionately high rates of suicide, alcohol abuse—it makes sense from a public health perspective when you understand the colonial discourse of Indigenous peoples.

I look at things preventively. Working with the Center’s behavioral health team in conjunction with southwestern American Indian communities I discovered approaches to improving mental health that can be readily adapted to the Great Lakes region—also diabetes and maternal and child health programs. We don’t have to recreate the wheel.

We can adapt those programs and see how to scale them up.

Open and accepting – the American Indian public health program at Johns Hopkins

I was reading an elders journal and noticed one of the editors had a bachelors degree and public health certificate, from the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health—that’s a little unusual for a journal editor, so I assumed it was a really good certificate training program. I applied and came to my first institute to study at Johns Hopkins in the Winter of 2011.

There were Native community members, physicians and other health professionals from across the nation or across the world, First Nations students from Canada—such a mix of people with different demographics and educational backgrounds. I remember being in awe. The intellectual environment was so validating.

It was also clear that the Center was built in a very personal way on the values of compassion and altruism—it felt very open and accepting.

My work and the future

What inspires me? Working with children and elders. Working with people who struggle with substance abuse. It’s a difficult population but there is other option for me, this is where I’ve felt that my journey has guided me.

I am inspired by seeing children who are struggling who are surviving in face of a lot of statistics and adversity—sitting down with them, watching them play.

The other day, I tested a little girl for cognitive ability—it amounts to IQ. She tested in the very high-superior range. I know she is struggling but with her mind she could change the world. It gave me chills to think what she is capable of over the course of her life, if we do our jobs and she is afforded a chance.   

About the Public Health Training Certificate for American Indian Health Professionals

Eight Winter and Summer Institutes comprise an 18-credit, graduate-level certificate that equips scholars with skills to address health issues in tribal communities through multidisciplinary public health approaches and culturally relevant strategies. Nearly 60 students have enrolled in this inclusive program, which provides a customized pathway to postgraduate accomplishments for a diverse student body. The certificate can be taken for credit or non-credit, making it accessible to those with or without a former collegiate degree. What students have in common is work experience in Native communities and a passion for promoting renewed well-being among their peoples. Learn more here.


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