As a principal investigator and Director of Native American Research and the Electroencephalography Core for LIBR, Dr. Evan White, Ph.D. dedicates much of his professional effort to working with American Indian communities to advance mental health. The focus of his work is employing clinical neuroscience to improve mental health outcomes among AI communities—in particular, his research looks at two things: cultural engagement and the role it may play in providing protection against poor mental health outcomes; he also works to identify the signatures of those cultural protective factors that may enhance culturally informed prevention and intervention efforts.
How does your work help advance health equity? What are you seeing in the American Indian communities?
In the scope of mental health studies, our work is very much in the early stages. Unfortunately, many mental health disparities among American Indian (AI) populations remain and are potentially even growing.
We have not observed changes in health disparities attributable to the research we’re doing; however, this work is advancing health equity in important ways. Native populations are vastly underrepresented in clinical neuroscience research, particularly as a population of focus. We are working to remedy this by placing AI communities at the center of our clinical-cultural neuroscience research, and by building community partnerships to collaborate in our research process.
The broader goal is to incorporate principles from community-engaged research methods (Community-Based Participatory Research/CBPR in particular) whenever possible. It’s important to note that this endeavor is not unique to our research, and encouragingly, our research is informed by a substantial and growing body of health equity researchers who champion community-grounded health equity research.
What are your research goals, purpose and aim?
My research aims to establish and advance a neuroscientific understanding of cultural factors that are protective against poor mental health among American Indians (AI) utilizing a strength-based framework. My goal is to integrate clinical and cultural neuroscience to identify modifiable factors as candidate treatment targets for mental health intervention and prevention.
We are working to establish a clinical-cultural-neuroscience framework in which mental health intervention and prevention efforts are culturally grounded, community-engaged, and guided by neuroscience.
You are an enrolled member of the Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. Does your identity as a tribal member inspire you to research minority health, health disparities, and health equity?
Improving the health and wellbeing of the populations we serve is a motivation many researchers share, and my commitment to helping the community I come from is no exception. However, my motivation extends to other communities and populations that also experience disparities and it is my hope that our work can make a meaningful impact at home and more broadly.
In the scientific and medical communities, it is a well-known fact that minority communities are disproportionately impacted by mental health risk factors and, as a result, mental health conditions. Like many native people, I have seen first-hand the impacts of suicide, substance misuse, and addiction. As health disparities researchers we can play an important role in helping to address these conditions.
On a positive note, I have also seen the incredible strengths and resilience of Native people and communities rooted in relationships and traditional cultural practices and values. I believe this is a critically important area for mental health disparities research – a community-grounded understanding of treating and preventing disparate mental health conditions which leverages and elevates the strengths that exist within communities.
Are there any studies you’re recruiting for right now? What type of volunteers do you need? Are volunteers paid, and what’s involved in being a volunteer?
We are always interested in people willing to participate in our research studies. Individuals who participate are compensated for their time and can expect to answer questions related to their health and general life experiences. If individuals qualify for one of our studies based on a variety of factors, they may be contacted to complete some additional protocols that include interviews, computer tasks and even brain scanning.
This is a big question: How do we encourage the next generation of scientists?
I know that for me, I received encouragement to pursue my passion from supportive mentors, training programs, colleagues, and family and friends outside of academia. The support I am given helps me find ways to encourage the next generation of scientists.
We need to engage students with hands-on research opportunities early in their training—and not just data collection and curation—but also with idea development, generating research questions, analytic training, and opportunities to share and present findings with a broad audience. Providing training like this in an inclusive and growth-oriented environment allows trainees to explore and develop their own passions for research. We have created these experiences at LIBR in recent years with the LIBR Accelerated Summer Research Internship and Diversity, Research, and Mental Health Neuroscience (DReaM-Neuro) fellowship programs.