Walnut Room this way

Walnut Room this way

Saturday, June 1, 2013

St. Paul Island, Alaska

I am preparing to teach a new class, Advanced Clinical Social Work Practice in Integrated Healthcare as part of a pilot project with the Council on Social Work Education, Health Resources and Services Administration, and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  It is about integrating behavioral healthcare into primary healthcare settings.  It is an online class, and as I was "introducing" myself to the students, I mentioned my five weeks of clinical work as an itinerant behavioral health provider on St. Paul Island.
 It caught the attention of one of the students who wants to visit there, albeit because of Deadliest Catch and her desire to see the crab fishermen.   I will probably never forget the intense feelings as our plane approached the tiny island (it's roughly 4 miles by 5 miles if I recall correctly, but it has been about 5 years since I was there) that I would call home for the following weeks.
 It was without a doubt one of, if not the most significant and influential experiences of my career.  I would go back without question--and once I get all my body parts back in working order, I still might.
 One does not have to go to a remote island off the coast of Alaska to see the importance of behavioral healthcare, nor the connection it has to health as a whole.  We have many people here in the lower 48, and right here in Mississippi and in the Delta who have unmet behavioral health needs.  Sometimes, because they are not recognized, sometimes because they are not treated, but they are there, affecting the lives and well-being of individuals, families, and communities.
 The idea behind the national project is an effort to increase the involvement of social work in identifying and meeting behavioral health needs, and in increasing the ability of the primary health setting to recognize and treat those needs.  My spring class compiled a literature review and developed a proposal for beginning the engagement of community in identifying and treating behavioral health concerns.  We will continue that approach during the summer class.  The request came to us from a community who advised:
African American communities typically do not seek behavioral health treatment.  It is not acknowledged.
The students' research, and subsequent proposal, builds on the strengths of African American communities in addressing behavioral health needs: the church community, often, the first line of help-seeking outside that of family and friends.
One of the things that St. Paul (and other Native Alaskan communities) attempt is to promote health and wellness in the community, outside of the behavioral and medical health care facility.  Such a community-based process has been used successfully in South Africa, both during and after apartheid.  There are communities in the US (lower 48) who have implemented such plans.  Our hope is not only to educate social workers for practice and policy development in this arena, but to actually assist a community in developing and implementing such a process.  It is community-university partnership that benefits each of us: communities, as we assist in providing services and resources to enhance health care; university and students, as we have opportunities to make the community our classroom and implement ideas beyond the theoretical.

If you think about it, partnership is what it is all about in most things--if you have it, it's a good thing.


Beth said...

Very interesting, thanks for sharing your thoughts and the work of your students. Please share more about their summer. I lived in Alaska for two years as a child; I also want to go back to experience Alaska as an adult.

Suzassippi said...

It is a fascinating place. For the past two summers, our plans have been to return (we also made a visit to the island of Unalaska a few years ago) but other things keep getting in the way...knees, for example. :)