A research project that involves Western Carolina University’s College of Health and Human Sciences and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians is examining the relationship between mental health issues, such as depression, and the management and control of diabetes.
The multiyear project funded by a $268,700 federal grant is engaging the college’s social work department, the Cherokee Indian Hospital and several public health and medical organizations in Cherokee in collaborative research that could lead to improved diabetes outcomes for older tribal members, who are the focus of the study.
The project won funding support from the United South and Eastern Tribes’ Native American Research Centers for Health, a partnership between the Indian Health Service and the National Institutes of Health. NARCH supports research programs involving universities and American Indian and Alaska Native tribes related to health concerns in tribal communities.
The research in Cherokee is being led by Turner Goins, a nationally known specialist in American Indian aging issues who joined the WCU faculty in 2013 as the Ambassador Jeanette Hyde Distinguished Professor of Gerontological Social Work. A gerontologist with a background in public health, Goins has worked with tribal communities throughout the U.S. for more than 15 years and has a longstanding relationship with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Her current research is an outgrowth of the Native Elder Care Study that she conducted from 2005 until 2011. The project involved a cross-sectional study of 505 tribal members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who were aged 55 years or older. The data obtained in that study will be used for this new one, Goins said.
“The work we’re doing now builds on the earlier study, with a focus on mental health and diabetes, which is an issue that tribal leaders have shared as a prevailing concern,” she said.
The goal of the research is to provide a better understanding of how mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and other conditions, affect diabetes outcomes. An important focus of the study will be to include an examination of the role of social support. Ultimately, the research could have a positive impact in the development of support systems for tribal elders who have the disease, Goins said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, diabetes was rare among American Indians before the 1950s but has exploded in prevalence in the past 50 years. Today, the disease is considered a major problem and American Indians have some of the highest rates in the world.