An Oklahoma State University professor studies health disparities among Indigenous people

OSU Research Matters is a biweekly look at the work of Oklahoma State University faculty, staff and students.

Many American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) communities experience high levels of health disparities, including health conditions related to smoking, alcohol and substance use disorders, deaths by suicide, and, more recently, negative impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic. These health care disparities have catastrophic impacts on mental health and public health; however, these research areas remain largely understudied among AI/AN populations.

In this episode, Megan Robinson talks with Dr. Ashley Cole to learn more about existing prevention and intervention efforts to improve the health of AI/AN communities.


ROBINSON: As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation of Oklahoma, Dr. Ashley Cole has a personal connection to her research. His focus is health promotion, health disparities, and health behaviors among American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Americans.

COLE: I’ve always been curious about why there are such high rates of substance use disorders, suicide deaths, mental illness among the Native American population. So that’s kind of the narrative that’s been told a lot in the media, a lot about the pathology and what’s wrong with these communities.

I’ve also always been interested in positive psychology. So I really understand what goes well with people. What do people do well? What can we learn from communities? And as I began to learn more about Native American history and modern Native American communities, I really learned that the narrative in the media doesn’t really reflect what’s happening right now. Not always. So there are many positive things we can learn from local communities.

ROBINSON: Why do Native American and Alaska Native communities experience high levels of health care disparities?

COLE: So a lot of it goes back to systemic issues, things all the way back to colonization and historical trauma, being forcibly removed from traditional homelands, things like the Trail of Tears or what’s called the Trail of Death in the Potawatomi culture.

Many Native American children, even up until the 1970s, were forcibly separated from their parents and forced into boarding schools where they would be assimilated into more European western cultures. So this is where many of the current health care inequities can be traced.

ROBINSON: Dr. Cole believes that creating policies to better serve Native Americans, Alaska Natives and Native peoples is essential to improving their health care. Other methods of prevention and intervention rely on the community.

COLE: The best practices and the best interventions are actually community-driven and community-led. So anything that involves community-based participatory research practices or CBPR, or community-engaged research, where really community members are partners in the research, really telling the researchers what they need and what interventions and strategies will help best of their community, whatever it is they are facing.

Part of that goes from kind of thinking from a systems-level perspective, thinking about more funding and resources from the government, through tribal health, Native American health services, and all the way down to an even smaller scale of teaching and training Native American students in ways that they can become involved in becoming a future health care provider or professional or educator or researcher, and ways they can better help their own communities.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *