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Washington State University Health Sciences Spokane

Q&A with Oladunni Oluwoye

Published October 11, 2021, by Judith Van Dongen

Portrait image of Oladunni OluwoyeEarlier this year, Oladunni Oluwoye was recognized as an NAACP Inland Northwest Black History Month Icon for her research on increasing racial health equity in addiction and mental health treatment. Oluwoye joined WSU in 2016 as a postdoctoral researcher in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and recently got promoted to assistant professor in the college’s newly created Department of Community and Behavioral Health. She has a PhD in health promotion and education from the University of Cincinnati and also completed graduate and undergraduate degrees in psychology at Alabama A&M University and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, respectively.

What brought you to WSU?
My husband—who at the time was my fiancé—got a job in Spokane. I wasn’t going to move to Spokane, but just after graduating with my PhD I was here for two months over the summer when a postdoc position opened up under Michael McDonell. I applied and hounded Mike to interview me since the position aligned with my interest in substance use. He offered me the job right on the cusp of me leaving to take a postdoc elsewhere.

How did you become interested in studying racial equity in substance use and mental health, specifically?
Ever since my master’s I have been interested in prevention and the prevalence of substance use among young adults, particularly Black young adults and youth. I was introduced to the mental health side as a postdoc because a lot of research we did here at the time—and still do—was on co-occurring disorders, a combination of mental health and substance use disorders. My parents are from Nigeria, where there is a lot of stigma about mental health. And being a Black family, we don’t talk about mental health as much as we should. That spurred my interest in pathways to care and reducing stigma, especially in the Black community.

A substantial part of your work focuses on psychosis. What is psychosis and what causes it?
Psychosis can include multiple different symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions. I don’t think there is one unique cause for why one person may experience psychosis versus someone else, but there are known predictors that research points us to that can initiate psychosis. These include cannabis use, discrimination, maternal health outcomes, and trauma. Similar to other chronic conditions such as diabetes, there are ways for individuals to manage their illness and live productive lives.

Tell us about the work you do here in Washington State around early intervention for psychosis.
We partner with the University of Washington on a state-funded project called New Journeys. It offers early intervention for psychosis through a coordinated specialty care program that provides multiple different services in a single setting for up to two years. This includes individual therapy, medication management, education and employment services, family psychoeducation, and peer support. The project started five years ago with one program in Yakima and has since expanded to 11 programs throughout the state. My WSU colleagues and I oversee the evaluation component, which helps us show that New Journeys has an impact. This helps the state secure additional funds and sustain programs.

Why is it important to catch psychosis early?
New Journeys enrolls individuals between the ages of 15 and 40. Research shows that not receiving services for psychosis increases an individual’s risk of homelessness and substance use. So catching people earlier—before their symptoms become severe—and getting them the support and understanding about their illness is important. In our coordinated specialty care program in Washington State, we have seen a reduction in symptoms and seen more people return to work and go back to school. In the absence of those services, we tend to see a downward trajectory for people with unmet mental health needs.

What other projects keep you busy?
I have a grant funded by the National Institute of Mental Health that focuses on the importance of family members in coordinated specialty care. When family members are engaged, it has an impact on their loved ones’ outcomes. To address disparities in family engagement in coordinated specialty care, we are testing culturally informed tools and strategies to increase engagement among racially and ethnically diverse families and families living in rural areas.

I am also conducting a pilot project focused on addressing substance abuse as part of coordinated specialty care. One study shows that about 50 percent of youth in coordinated specialty care have a lifetime substance use disorder. Substance abuse treatment often takes a backseat to psychosis treatment. Yet when individuals come into treatment using substances it has an impact on their psychosis symptoms and can make them more likely to disengage from treatment. So we are integrating an evidence-based intervention known as contingency management into the program to see whether this could help improve overall treatment outcomes.

Finally, I am the co-director of the Washington State Center of Excellence in Early Psychosis, which is one outcome of our collaboration with the University of Washington on New Journeys. As part of the center, we do a lot of work focused on first-episode psychosis that expands beyond the scope of the New Journeys project.

How does the work you do contribute to improving access to care for racially and ethnically diverse populations?
Through my research, I get to engage with clients and families who share their stories with me. We share that information with the state to identify gaps and modify services in response. So the clients and families I work with are fueling our research questions, what interventions we want to create, and what areas we want to address through our research. You don’t get that kind of in-depth knowledge from just looking at statistics.

How has working for WSU impacted your career as a researcher?
Working here has given me the room to explore what I want to explore, which has expanded beyond my initial focus on substance use. I truly value the support I have received from people such as Michael McDonell, Sterling McPherson, Celestina Barbosa-Leiker, and John Roll. They have provided me with great career advice and mentorship and have hired fantastic people that I enjoy working with. We have a really supportive team of people who are just fun to work with.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.