O’Keefe wins distinguished psychology award
BALTIMORE – Cherokee Nation citizen Victoria O’Keefe, assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, won a distinguished award on Aug. 10 for her graduate work regarding American Indian and Alaska Native suicide prevention.
O’Keefe was recognized by the American Psychological Association with the 2018 APA Award for Distinguished Professional Contributions by an Outstanding Graduate Student.
“Some of the work that I’m doing, I’m still doing suicide prevention work with Native communities now. I work with on the mental health team at the center and our center for American Indian Health, where I currently am, collaborates with more than 110 tribal communities on a variety of health issues including infectious disease prevention, behavioral health programs as well as mental health programs,” O’Keefe said.
During her time as an undergraduate student at John Carroll University, O’Keefe said she saw a lack of research within Native communities within the psychological literature and those communities experiencing health and mental health inequities that inspired her to pursue a graduate degree in psychology. She attended a summer research fellowship program called American Indians into Psychology at Oklahoma State University.
“It recruits Native students to spend time at OSU learning about how to apply to graduate programs in psychology as well as gain direct experience working in a research lab, which is an important part of being in graduate school and psychology. And also getting exposure to what clinical work looks like in tribal community clinics,” she said.
She said while in the fellowship program, she was inspired even more by American Indian clients she met while working in a behavioral health facility.
“I felt that losing family and friends to suicide shouldn’t be a norm in Native communities. I also know from national statistics that American Indian and Alaska Native youth have the highest suicides death rates compared to youth from the same age groups in other ethnic groups. So this personal experience that I had as well as the research that I was doing on my own and knowing the national statistics really motivated my work,” O’Keefe said.
The summer following the fellowship program, she was accepted into the clinical psychology doctorate program at OSU and graduated in 2016.
As an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins in the Center for American Indian Health, O’Keefe is continuing her work in psychology and mental health. She said one of the biggest projects she is working on is called the “Collaborative Hub to Reduce the Burden of Suicide Among American Indian and Alaska Native Youth” and is working collaboratively with five tribes, including the CN.
“I’m working collaboratively with Cherokee Nation through this grant. And I’m also hoping to partner on other grants, collaboratively with Cherokee Nation, on reducing suicide and promoting strength and resilience in Cherokee communities,” she said.
She recently made a trip to Oklahoma to talk with CN mental health providers, behavioral health staff, local elders and other CN employees about what suicide looks like in Cherokee communities.
“Particularly for me its significant and humbling to be working with the Cherokee Nation because my grandmother was a community health rep for the Nation, and while I was earning my doctoral degree at Oklahoma State and she told me ‘one day maybe you’ll come back and work with the Nation.’ And so with my own work now I hope I’m really making her proud through that,” she said.
O’Keefe said she is planning to teach an Indigenous health course during the spring semester at Johns Hopkins that she helped develop. The course focuses on Indigenous health through public health and historical, social, cultural and political determinants.
“I just hope to continue to provide Native representation in the academy, and I really think this allows us to change the narrative and being present in classroom content and physical presence on campuses through bringing Native students to graduate programs as well as doing community driven research and respecting Native communities as research partners to continue to develop culturally informed solutions, especially around suicide prevention,” she said.