BOZEMAN – The National Institutes of Health has funded a new phase of ongoing research into the link between trauma, social connectedness and health in the Blackfeet community, and the Montana State University researcher leading the project hopes it will provide data to enable future community-developed programs focused on improving health.

Neha John-Henderson, associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Letters and Science and co-principal investigator for the study, said the work will build on that conducted under a four-year, $2.18 million NIH grant she was awarded in 2021 to investigate dynamic relationships between social connectedness and health risk and health resilience on the Blackfeet Reservation.

Two years into that study, which is following adults representing diverse segments of the reservation’s population, the first wave of data shows a correlation between varied degrees of loneliness and numerous health indicators like blood pressure, sleep quality and body mass index, John-Henderson said. The next phase of work to be funded with the new five-year, $3.37 million NIH grant will examine how Blackfeet adults ages 18-35 respond to challenges, and how those responses relate to historical and childhood trauma. This is important because patterns of responses to challenge have implications for mental and physical health, John-Henderson said.

“The next study will be the first of its kind to comprehensively measure patterns of psychological and physiological responses to challenge in American Indian adults and to investigate whether these patterns are shaped by trauma exposure and indices of social connectedness,” she said. “We predict that trauma may have implications for these responses, and that social connectedness may offset the health risks typically associated with trauma.”

Annie Ginty, an expert in physiological responses to stress and challenge and an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University, is the co-PI for the project. She and John-Henderson will travel to Browning frequently during the course of the study.

Both NIH-funded studies are building on pilot work conducted by John-Henderson on the Blackfeet Reservation between 2017 and 2019, including two studies funded by MSU’s Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity, or CAIRHE. She found that community connectedness appeared to offset physiological risk for disease, particularly among individuals who experienced high levels of trauma early in life. Those who felt lonely or less connected to the community reported more symptoms of anxiety and depression.

She also found evidence that frequency of positive social interactions was inversely related to blood pressure and that average perceived social connectedness was inversely related to levels of immune system inflammation. Adults who reported more loneliness across a one-week period also experienced worse sleep during that time.

To measure the degrees of loneliness and social connectedness, the researchers use the short loneliness scale, which is a subjective report of an individual’s level of loneliness that takes into account the size of a person’s social network and number of contacts within that network in a given week. The researchers also measure each person’s social participation, or “attendance,” in activities identified by Blackfeet community members, including church, powwow or other traditional ceremony attendance. Participants also were asked about how integrated they feel into the larger Blackfeet community.

John-Henderson said that her Blackfeet community partners indicated they want to avoid focusing exclusively on factors related to poor health in the community and instead to investigate solutions; both NIH-funded studies have been designed with that in mind. A community advisory board comprising Blackfeet community members has overseen and informed the study design and continue to be involved at each stage of the research process. On-site data collection and lab work is supervised by Blackfeet Community College faculty member Betty Henderson-Matthews and the project coordinator Skye Gilham. Several Blackfeet Community College students and community members are also involved in data collection.

 “Our work is inspired by a focus on resilience and understanding the psychological, social and behavioral factors that help community members thrive and achieve optimal health despite challenges or adversity they may face,” John-Henderson said. “We hope to utilize the data we collect to inform future research and to acquire funding to support intervention efforts that work to reduce health inequities.”

- by Diana Setterberg, MSU News Service -