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Ph.D. student awarded Robert Wood Johnson Foundation scholarship

Doctoral student Hayden Dawes has been selected as a 2020 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health Policy Research Scholar. Dawes, a second year Ph.D. student at UNC’s School of Social Work, is among a group of graduate students from across the country tapped for the prestigious national leadership development program.

Led by John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with support from the RWJF, the Health Policy Research Scholars program targets second-year, full-time doctoral students who have demonstrated that their research has the potential to impact health and well-being. Selected scholars are awarded an annual stipend of $30,000 for up to four years of study and are given access to professional coaching, mentoring and networking.

Dawes is the second Ph.D. student from the UNC School of Social Work to be named a RWJF Health Policy Research Scholar. Fellow doctoral student Annie Francis was the first social work graduate to receive the honor in 2017.

For Dawes, the selection is both humbling and affirming.

“I think being in academia and being acculturated to this system, you can have a lot of doubts,” he said. “So, it feels validating and it feels like other people are supporting my work, both financially and through their energies and resources and efforts as well. It makes me feel less alone.

“I also know that I’m joining a community of people who are committed to the same things that I am.”

The scholarship program intentionally supports students from underrepresented populations and disadvantaged backgrounds, especially those whose ethnicity, socioeconomic status, ability and other factors enable them to bring unique and diverse perspectives to their research. The goal is to train doctoral students to use their discipline-based research training to “build a culture of health” that ensures that all individuals are afforded the opportunity to live longer, healthier lives.

Dawes’ research focuses on improving the mental health and social well-being of people of color and LGBTQIA+ individuals by strengthening mental health services, systems, and policies. Research has shown that LGBTQIA+ people of color, in particular, face interlocking systems of oppression related to their race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender – all of which can contribute to various mental health disparities.

Dawes’ research aims to address these issues by developing and testing innovative approaches to educate mental health professionals on implicit and explicit biases, while also advancing equity for multiply marginalized client and patient populations in health, mental health, and social service organizations.

“Hayden is a great match for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program because he thinks about his work in complex ways and on multiple levels,” said Associate Dean for Doctoral Education Mimi Chapman. “He is a seasoned clinician who sees the links between clinical practice and the policy environment. He is going to be a game-changer in LGBTQ mental health, and I am so glad RWJF has chosen him for this opportunity.”

Dawes’ pursuit of a career in social work nearly didn’t happen. Following his high school graduation, he enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he studied vocal performance and earned a degree in music.

“My voice teacher at the time told me in order to be successful at this you need to eat, sleep, live and breathe it,” Dawes recalled. “And I thought I was deeply committed to music, but I wasn’t.”

A brief moment in retail sales for a cell phone company and cable company eventually led Dawes to a chance meeting with a political science professor who steered him toward the public human services sector. Dawes eventually enrolled in the MSW program at N.C. State University, where he said he quickly discovered a sense of belonging, professionally and personally.

“As a Black gay man, I thought, ‘I have found my home,’” he said. “My identities are not a deficit in this space, they are an advantage and my perspective is heralded here.”

In field, Dawes’ found the additional connection and purpose he’d been searching for in working with community mental health recipients, and individuals who were homeless. Shortly after graduating from N.C. State, he was hired as a clinical social worker and later as an intervention research therapist at the Durham VA Medical Center. Here, Dawes worked closely with clients from a diversity of backgrounds, including individuals who identified as transgender and those in recovery from substance use disorders and mental illness.

Their complex experiences with discrimination reinforced his interest in better understanding and closing existing gaps in mental health services and systems, specifically for marginalized populations.

“If clinicians can’t have conversations about a Black queer person, then what on earth is happening in these sessions when we know these are populations that suffer because of living at these intersections,” he said. “They suffer from these societal discrimination and inequities that are occurring. But if clinicians don’t see it and they don’t identify the problem, then they can’t see the solution. If you’re not creating and fostering an affirming environment in which to have these conversations, and to let people know that it’s OK to talk about their sexual minority status, then you’re not going to capture them, and you’re not going to be able to attend to their needs as closely as possible.”

As a Health Policy Research Scholar, Dawes sees an opportunity to further explore the science and research at the intersection of race and sexual and gender minority status. This kind of work is key to transforming the mental health system and ensuring that appropriate and equitable care is available to LGBTQIA+ people of color, he said.

“I want conversations about intersectionality within health spaces to be a given not an exception,” Dawes said. “I don’t think Black women, whether they are lesbian or not, should have to worry that someone will see all the richness their experience brings when they enter to see a psychiatrist. And I don’t want the psychiatrist to see that she’s just a Black woman. I want them to see her queerness. I want providers to feel empowered to be able to sit with that and to be able to explore what it means to have employment discrimination, not just for being a woman but also for being a lesbian. I want them to know what it means to live in an environment where they question everything they do for fear of being ridiculed for being in predominantly Black spaces or predominantly white spaces.

Ultimately these kinds of conversations will move mental health care into spaces where it’s a lot more affirming and responsive.”