Denise Casillas, a half Lakota, half Latina single mother, wanted to better understand why many of her people on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation were locked in a cycle of violence, extreme poverty and substance abuse. She also wanted to help them break free of it, and she thought a PhD in clinical psychology would equip her to do that. But when she graduated from the University of South Dakota (USD) with a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1997, she decided she'd have to forgo the PhD. Instead, she enrolled in USD's master's program in interdisciplinary studies and worked as a counselor at the university's Native American Cultural Center.
"I had two small children," says Casillas, a participant in the APA/ National Institute for General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) program at USD--which gave her mentoring and networking opportunities as an undergraduate and financial support to present her research at psychological associations as a graduate student. "I knew the level of intensity the program would require."
But she doubted she had the stamina to endure the program. Also, as a Native American from the small reservation community of Thunder Butte in northcentral South Dakota, she had ambiguous feelings about university researchers, who had historically come onto reservations with promises to help the people, only to leave once they got what they wanted or funding ran out, she says.
Then, in 1998, psychology professor Beth Todd-Bazemore, PhD, team leader for USD's APA/NIGMS program, recruited her to do volunteer field work surveying residents of the Standing Rock Reservation in Fort Yates, S.D. Todd-Bazemore had helped Casillas get into the university's master's program in interdisciplinary studies--with a concentration in psychology, counseling and alcohol and drug abuse studies. The program served as a "bridge to strengthen my knowledge and skills to eventually apply to the clinical psychology program," Casillas says.
At the same time, the Standing Rock project gave Casillas a chance to put her studies to practical use. The reservation had recently experienced a slew of teenage suicides, and tribal elders had asked Gene Thin Elk, USD's Native American cultural adviser and Todd-Bazemore to help them understand why. Todd-Bazemore, from the Seneca Nation of Indians in New York, and her students began interviewing residents and holding focus groups about the suicides. Todd-Bazemore used the information they gathered to create a survey, which Casillas and her peers took from house to house on the reservation.
"This opportunity...gave me a different perspective," says Casillas, whose Lakota name is Itazipco win. "It inspired me to reclaim my dream of being a clinical psychologist. I saw how valuable research could be." (The final report, which was given to the tribe, cited a breakdown in the family unit as a main reason for the suicides.)
In August 2001, Casillas began her first year as a doctoral student in clinical psychology at USD after completing her master's degree. She intends to focus her research on substance abuse among Native American women, "the heart of my people," says Casillas, a graduate student mentor for APA/NIGMS and a recipient of the APA Minority Fellowship in 2002 and 2003.
"I plan to spend the rest of my life using my psychology training to change the way the Lakota people heal from historical trauma and addictions through research, therapy and our own spirituality," she says.