Psychology students bring ‘much needed’ aid to Neb. reservations


By Michael Wunder, News Editor

A class of psychology students at the University of Nebraska Omaha got a rare opportunity to apply their studies to the real world last Thursday, administering depression screenings at two Nebraska Native American reservations.

Jessiline Anderson’s Clinical Psychology course visited the Omaha and Winnebago reservations north of Omaha for National Depression Screening Day.  UNO students helped with a depression inventory for students and senior citizens as part of a service-learning program.

“For me, service learning is really who I am,” Anderson, who possesses a doctorate in  Clinical Psychology, said.  “Serving in our community is a great way to give back to the community.”

The students handed out Beck Depression Inventories to students at the Omaha Nation Public School and Walthill School on the Omaha reservation and at the Blackhawk Community Center on the Winnebago reservation.  The inventory is a 21-question multiple-choice self-report exam. Individuals fill out the inventory themselves, then professionals—students in this case—review the completed instrument and measure depression severity.

For the residents of the reservations, the testing the students gave was “much needed,” Anderson said.

Depression can be a crippling mental health problem for many Americans, and the disorder’s effects are magnified in Native American populations.

Thirty-three percent of Native American adults on the Omaha and Winnebago reservations suffer from depression, according to past research done by Anderson.  Last Thursday’s testing found that 20 percent of adolescents on the Omaha reservations suffer from depression.

In comparison, 8 percent of the general U.S. population suffers from depression.

“This is a problem in these communities,” Anderson said.

The Omaha reservation is a 12,421-acre tract of land in northeastern Nebraska, located mostly in Thurston County.  Tribal council offices are located in Macy, and the towns of Rosalie, Thurston, Pender and Walthill all fall within the reservation’s boundaries.  Six thousand American Indians belong to the Omaha tribe currently, and half that number resides on the reservation.

Anderson said depression rates are higher on reservations for a myriad of issues, including poverty, dysfunctional families and unemployment.  Work opportunities are difficult to find on the reservations—a small number of residents find employment in limited openings at tribal health centers or with tribal administration.

Donna Wolff, a speaker with a mission of preventing suicide, was also on the Omaha reservation that day and stressed the importance of screenings and suicide prevention programs.

“The screenings are such a valuable tool to use to help show the schools how many kids are suffering from depression,” Wolff said.  “Along with the screenings, when they get a chance to hear my presentation it gives them permission to tell someone how much they are suffering and to show them the destruction that suicide has on a family after a completion. It shows them that there is hope to not have to be silent anymore.”

Wolff started a suicide support group in Norfolk after losing her son to suicide.

“Suicide and depression and mental illness are all topics that need to be talked about openly in our society now,” Wolff said.  “So many people are walking around with open wounds on the inside of their brains that no one can see.  But they need professional medical help.”

The results the students gathered will help the reservations in many ways, Anderson said.  Tribal leaders were looking for research that would offer a picture of what “depression and suicide look like in their communities” in order to combat the issue  The screenings’ results will be used to engage potential funding sources that could bring depression and suicide prevention programs to the reservations.

Beyond helping the reservation on a broad scale, the screenings brought aid to individuals as well.

At the end of their day, UNO students screening at Walthill and Omaha Nation Public schools referred troubling cases to school officials, allowing administration to focus on students requiring the most attention.

Annesha Mitra, a senior double majoring in neuroscience and psychology, felt she and her classmates made a difference.

“Even if it was just 2 or 3 lives that we were able to save, its still better than none,” Mitra said.  “And that makes me feel like we did something to make a difference.”

The opportunity to do serious research and to apply classroom topics to the real world in a way that makes a considerable difference is rare, Anderson said.

“I think the big deal here is that a lot of students would not get this opportunity until well into grad school,” Anderson said.  “Some folks in grad school don’t even get this.”

One of Anderson’s goal with projects like this is to give students a chance to evaluatr their choice to be a clinical psychologist.

“Until you get that hands-on experience, you don’t really know if this is what you want to do or not,” Andersen said.  

Often, after experiences like this, students have told Andersen, “‘I wanted to go into clinical, but I don’t think I can handle this.'”

For Mitra, the opportunity was eye-opening..

“I had a really interesting experience,” Mitra said.  “I wasn’t expecting what I saw.”

A number of students had to be referred to psychologists or counselors because they responded that they were making final arrangements, like giving away prized possessions or saying goodbyes.

“It was just a little scary that kids around the ages of 11 to 17 could be that unhappy that they wanted to end their life,” Mitra said. “It was just sad.”

In the end, Mitra was glad she was able to participate.