Brady Garrett sees what is being done and wants to do more.
As a psychologist for Cherokee Nation Behavioral Health in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the Bloomberg fellow has been on the frontline of America’s opioid epidemic, dealing with one of the nation’s most marginalized populations. Native Americans and Alaska Natives have been particularly hard hit by the epidemic, with the highest overdose death rates in 2015 of any race or ethnicity: 22.1 per 100,000 people in metropolitan areas and 19.8 per 100,000 people in rural areas.
With such alarming statistics, native communities need swift solutions. But Garrett, a part-time MPH candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, says Native health systems, including those of the Cherokee Nation, have struggled in their fight against opioids for a variety of reasons.
We talked to Garrett about how he’s gaining the skills, connections and perspective necessary to bring data-driven public health approaches to his day-to-day work with people in his community.
How did you come to work for the Cherokee Nation?
The Cherokee Nation has been just incredibly supportive of my professional goals since I was an undergrad. When I left to pursue my Ph.D., I knew I wanted to go back and work for the tribe. My doctoral program specifically emphasized health disparities and I really took to that. The Cherokee Nation and American Indians as a whole are a health-disparaged population. There are high rates of depression, suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use — in particular opioid misuse and opioid-related addiction.
Where are you and your colleagues in Tahlequah on addressing the opioid crisis?
One of the biggest take-homes from my time at Johns Hopkins is that tribal health systems often lack the resources and capacity to collect public health information that’s crucial for us to understand the crisis. We see [addiction] in our facilities every day and hear about opioid overdoses, but what we need is funding for research to quantify the problem. Only if we come to understand both the trends and hotspots of the opioid crisis in Cherokee Nation can we even think about applying for funding to kick-start harm-reduction initiatives, like syringe exchange and medication-assisted treatment. Programs that have been in place in other states and municipalities for decades.
How are you using what you’ve learned during your time at the Bloomberg American Health Initiative?
The most valuable asset I’ve received is confidence. Oftentimes, the issues of opioid addiction and breaking down stigma around mental health in my community can seem daunting, especially considering the cultural aversion to westernized health care, let alone behavioral health care. But every class or symposium or institute I attend at Johns Hopkins strengthens my resolve to do what I’m passionate about doing. With the relationships I’m making and the knowledge I’m gaining , I see the starting line for tackling the opioid crisis and how to connect to the resources necessary to collect data and accurately scope the problem in a way that is meaningful and culturally responsive.