Native American Alum Makes National News Helping Her People

By Dan Sheridan

“I am a Native American of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe. I grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. Most of my clientele are Native Americans and I want to find ways to work with other native populations.”

Meet Grace Johnson, Bellevue University alumnus. Since January, 2018, she has been serving members of the Omaha tribe as the Behavioral Health Director at the tribally operated Carl T. Curtis Behavioral Health Education Center in Macy, Nebraska, on the Omaha Reservation. Johnson is where she’s at today because of hard work combined with passion.

“For that past five years or so,” explained Johnson, “I have been working toward my goal of being in charge of a mental health department because I know where my people need help. We need trauma-focused techniques and trauma-informed people, and now I can direct the department toward the biggest issues facing Native communities.”

Johnson’s passion for her fellow Native Americans drove her into her current field. Johnson, already holding an undergraduate in psychology in order to meet her ultimate goal of running her own department, searched for the best institution to get her master’s in clinical counseling. She chose Bellevue University because “they put more emphasis on that actual work of counseling,” said Johnson.

“I also liked the option of being able to take the course both online and in class,” said Johnson. This was an important feature for her since she had to juggle school, two children, and work as a part-time family support counselor.

Bellevue University’s clinical counseling program is CACREP-accredited, which stands for the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs. CACREP accreditation is considered the national “gold standard” and Bellevue University’s program is one of the few in the nation that is fully online.

Johnson said the course lives up to Bellevue University’s motto, “Real Learning for Real Life.” “The Bellevue program,” Johnson explained, “prepared me to run groups, to do individual therapy, and to do assessments; I got the essential detailed knowledge that has helped me practice in the real world.”

Johnson, in addition to loving the practical curriculum, admired her professors whose teachings were inspired by years of personal experience in the field. “Dr. Jon Kayne was one of my favorite teachers,” Johnson said, “he has a lot of life wisdom which comes from his many experiences, and he’s accommodating, friendly, warm, and welcoming.”

“Dr. Kayne emphasized research; to take the time to find evidence based practices that are working,” said Johnson. This advice she has taken to heart and it has aided her greatly in her current mission of providing practical solutions for the people she serves.

Johnson graduated from Bellevue University in 2014. Armed with her Master of Science in Clinical Counseling degree, she pressed forward and captured her ultimate prize this past January when she was appointed to her current position as the Behavioral Health Director on the Omaha Reservation. Now, in her new role, Johnson is directing her team of therapists to grapple with her clients’ toughest problems.

“I do what are called Historical Trauma Presentations,” explains Johnson, “which ties these issues together, explaining the things which happened to Native peoples in the past that are still affecting us today. It is very trauma-focused which is why I chose to get my Master’s in Clinical Counseling at Bellevue University — so I could focus on trauma therapy.”

Johnson is making sure her staff is properly educated to best serve the Native community. “My goal right now,” explained Johnson, “is getting all my therapists trauma trained so they can be trauma certified.”

Johnson, now widely recognized as an expert in her field, recently made the news when she was asked by the Mayor of the City of Omaha and the Omaha Police Department to provide Native American cultural sensitivity and mental health training. The request for training came on the heels of a nationally publicized incident in which a mentally ill Native American man, Zachary Bearheels, died in police custody. The Omaha Police Department, thanks to Johnson’s efforts, is now learning about Native Americans and Native American culture, which will surely make for better relations.

Grace Johnson is living her dream. She is extremely proud to be able to help her people. “When I was a staff subordinate,” Johnson proudly explained, “I saw the issues that were affecting my people, but now I’m in the position to direct the focus of our efforts toward them and provide practical solutions.”

See Grace Johnson in the news.

For more information about Johnson’s Native Tribe.

For more information about Johnson’s current work.

For more information about the Carl T. Curtis Behavioral Health Education Center.