Feature

Doreen Lacy grew up in Hooper Bay, Alaska, a town of about 1,000 people on the state's western coast. After college, Lacy, a Yu'pik Eskimo, taught school for three years in rural Alaska. Those years opened her eyes to Alaska Natives' need for more mental health workers, so when she and her husband and three children moved to Fairbanks for her husband's job, she decided to go back to school-with the help of a scholarship from a program called Alaska Natives into Psychology (ANPsych).

Now, she's finishing her master's degree in community psychology and works with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium researching tobacco's effects on Alaska Native communities.

That's exactly the sort of story that Pam Deters, PhD, hopes to see multiplied many times over. Deters, a psychology professor at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, heads the statewide ANPsych program, which also has a branch at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.

The program's goal, Deters says, is to increase the number of psychologists and other mental health providers in Alaska-particularly rural Alaska-by providing financial support and training to Alaska Native psychology students.

The need for Alaska Native mental health practitioners is great, Deters notes. The suicide rate for Alaska Natives is more than four times that of the general U.S. population, and the alcohol-related mortality rate is more than seven times higher, according to federal Indian Health Service statistics. Yet 62 percent of rural Alaskan villages have no direct access to any behavioral health providers, according to a University of Alaska study conducted in 2000.

Part of the problem, Deters says, is that many of the behavioral health providers in Alaska are nonnative, and it's difficult to keep people unaccustomed to life in rural Alaska in the state long-term.

"Most workers are itinerant," she says. "There's no road system here, and you have to fly in and out of places or travel by boat. Many people romanticize the experience, but it's difficult."

Alaska Native community members trained in psychology, however, are more likely to return to their home communities and stay permanently in Alaska, Deters says.

Support systems

The ANPsych program, which began in 1999, aims to help Alaska Natives give back to their communities by providing financial, academic and social support to undergraduates and graduate students. Over the past five years the program has awarded stipends, scholarships and tuition waivers to more than 70 students, and an additional 80 undergraduate and graduate students have received academic and social support from the program.

Academically, the program offers students tutoring, mentoring and career-development workshops.

"It's helped me out a lot," says undergraduate psychology student Stephanie Sweetsir. "I've gone to workshops where I've learned APA style, learned how to write a curriculum vitae, and how to look for scholarships and write quality scholarship letters."

The program also strives to create a community for the students, Deters says, hosting potlucks and other social and cultural events.

"The students come together, and they eat traditional foods and sing and dance and drum," she says. "And we also talk about psychology and how important it is for native people to study psychology."

Finally, Deters says, the program works to interest junior high and high school students in psychology as well. To that end, staff and students travel around the state-often by boat and small plane-to encourage high school students to apply to college and study psychology. Sweetsir, for example, who is from the 700-person town of Galena, recently returned home to speak to students who had gathered there from dozens of rural villages for a high school basketball tournament.

Even students who are not interested in psychology careers can benefit from the program, according to Deters. "If they decide psychology isn't for them, we try to be helpful and route them to programs in social work, nursing or other areas of behavioral health," she says.

The program's efforts have been paying off, says Deters. This year, about 35 percent of undergraduate psychology students at the Fairbanks campus are Alaska Native, as compared with about 18 percent of the school's overall population. A similar trend is occurring at the Anchorage campus, she notes.

A program in peril

Despite this success, however, the program's future is uncertain. Each year since 2001, it's received funding through an earmarked congressional appropriation. For the past three years the congressional appropriation has been approximately $500,000. This year, however, that funding is unlikely to come through, according to Martha Stewart, the University of Alaska's director of federal relations.

"This program has been funded through the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services," Stewart says, "and the Appropriations Committee has decided that there will be no earmarks through those agencies nationwide this year."

APA's Public Policy Office is reaching out to the Alaskan congressional delegation to try to preserve funding for the program. In the meantime, Stewart says she hopes that the program will be able to find other sources of funding-perhaps through private foundations or through Alaska Native corporations, the geographical groups to which Alaska Natives belong, which are similar to American Indian government-recognized tribes.

Deters, however, says that so far those avenues haven't proven fruitful. Although the corporations are willing to provide scholarships to individual students, she says, they haven't shown interest in funding the program. Unless congressional or other funding comes through, she says, the program will end in July.

"We're not accepting new students into the program right now," she says. "And we're starting to prepare our students for the fact that we won't be able to support them like we have in the past."

Despite the current funding woes, Deters emphasizes the importance of cultural programs such as ANPsych to the success of Native students. "These programs create a community for minority students," she says. "I believe they're vital to the success of psychology as a discipline in a multicultural world."