When you hear the word, “science,” what do you think about? Perhaps you picture laboratories with strange liquids bubbling in beakers and people in long white coats. But there are other forms of science, such as social science, which is a type of study that looks at societies and how people relate to each other within their societies. One type of social science is psychology, the study of how people and animals think and behave. I am a psychologist who does mostly applied science, which means that I use my scientific knowledge of how people think to solve real-life problems.
Psychology is a very broad field, and I have studied many different areas of it. But what I do now is study alcohol and drugs and the effects of substance abuse on communities, especially Native American communities. Substance abuse is the use of alcohol and drugs to the point of not being able to live a healthy and happy life.
Alcohol and drugs can be very harmful on both a personal level and a community level. Substance abuse often affects low-income communities where people face discrimination and inequality on all levels—in their housing, schools, and job opportunities. For example, many Native American communities have been fighting substance abuse problems for generations.
One thing that I really believe does not help prevent substance abuse is sending people to prison, which is what often happens to people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. When I was younger, I worked as a psychologist at the Bureau of Prisons. I noticed that most of the people there were in prison because they were addicted to drugs or alcohol. Drug and alcohol addiction are illnesses, and it’s very hard for people to get better without help. But inmates I worked with weren’t treated as patients; they were treated as criminals, and they didn’t get the help they needed to recover from their addictions. I finally left the Bureau of Prisons, but I stayed interested in issues of substance abuse and criminal justice.
These problems are even worse now than they were twenty years ago. There are a lot more people in prisons now, and about nine out of every 10 people in prison are there because of substance abuse. There are many Native Americans in prison, which is something that not many people realize. This is the reason that my goal as a psychologist and as a member of the Native American community is to develop treatment programs that help Native American communities. I believe very strongly in using programs that stop drug and alcohol use through education and improving people’s lives, rather than using the prison system, which stops their lives altogether.
The theory behind my work is that the only kind of treatment plan for substance abuse that will really work is to give people hope that their lives will get better. Some ways to do that are to help people find jobs, help them value themselves, their cultural heritage, and their community. When people believe that their lives have meaning, they are less likely to use drugs or alcohol.
Although this blending of science and community work may be unusual, it is important to remember that there are many different types of science that contribute to scientific knowledge. I am most interested in the applied science of psychology because I want to help my people live happier lives in healthy communities.