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Women of Achievement: Oladunni Oluwoye works to improve access to mental health

OladunnOluwoye  (Courtesy)
OladunnOluwoye (Courtesy)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

No one knew that a girl born and raised in Sydney would become an assistant professor in the Washington State University College of Medicine after a stopover in Alabama for a few years.

Oladunni Oluwoye is also now researching inequities in mental health services among racially and ethnically diverse youth and is co-director of the Washington State Center for Excellence in Early Psychosis.

Oluwoye’s efforts to improve access to mental health treatment has earned her a YWCA Women of Achievement Award in science, technology and environment. Oluwoye and the other award winners will be honored at a luncheon at 11:30 a.m. on March 24 at the Davenport Grand. Ticket sales end Thursday

The family moved from Australia to Alabama just before Oluwoye’s senior year in high school because her father got a position at Alabama A&M University, where he still works. Coming to the United States was a bit of a culture shock for Oluwoye, who was used to a diverse population that included people of Middle Eastern and Asian descent.

“Diversity here, especially in Alabama, is very black-and-white,” she said.

After high school, she attended the University of Alabama in Birmingham and earned a degree in psychology. She hadn’t put a lot of thought into her choice, however.

“It was just a degree,” she said. “In undergrad, I wasn’t thinking this far forward. I just wanted a job that wasn’t at the Gap.”

After she graduated, she began working with children with autism. She decided she wanted to continue her education and for her master’s degree and doctorate she focused on the difference in alcohol and drug use among Black youth and adults when compared to white youth and adults and preparing programs to address that difference.

“I just fell in love with psychology and research,” she said.

She earned her master’s degree at Alabama A&M and her doctorate in health prevention and education came from the University of Cincinnati.

“My partner got a job in Spokane and that was what made me move over,” she said.

When they arrived, Oluwoye learned of an open position at WSU. She thought she would focus on substance abuse treatment, but after she came to WSU she found her interests switching to mental health, specifically people in the early stages of psychosis. Psychosis can be caused by drug use or by mental illness. It can be something of a chicken-or-the-egg discussion, Oluwoye said, because it can be difficult to determine if the mental illness was caused by drug abuse, which can happen, or if the person was already mentally ill before they began using drugs.

She focuses her work on access to care and the disparities that exist in the access to care. Along the way she’s written more than 45 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters. She’s one of the lead evaluators for New Journeys, a Washington State treatment program that focuses on early intervention for young people dealing with psychosis.

She received the Early Career Award from the Schizophrenia International Research Society in 2019, which is given to promising emerging scientists conducting mental health research. She received the Outstanding Contribution to Research and Scholarship Award at the WSU College of Medicine in 2020.

Despite those previous accolades, Oluwoye said she was shocked to be selected for the YWCA award. After looking at the previous recipients, she said she felt a little bit like she had imposter syndrome, which is a term for when people believe that they aren’t as competent as others think they are.

The award has also given her incentive to keep up her efforts to improve access to mental health care.

“It makes me want to do more and be more,” she said. “Now I kind of have to do more to live up to receiving this award.”

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