State Beat: Alaska psychologist Ray M. Droby receives 2017 Excellence in Rural Psychology Award

APA recognizes Droby for his service to the underserved Alaska Native populations of the Bering Strait Region.

By Hannah Calkins

In December 1995, Ray M. Droby, PhD, traveled from his home in northern Wisconsin to Nome, Alaska, to start the next phase of his career as a staff psychologist with the Norton Sound Health Corporation (NSHC). While many people would balk at the idea of a deep-winter drive north across the continent, Droby happily completed most of the journey by car.

“That’s actually the best time to go because there’s no traffic,” Droby said. “It was a wonderful trip. I really enjoyed it.”

Droby, a Commissioned Corps Officer in the U.S. Public Health Service, has been with NSHC ever since. Now director of psychological services at NSHC’s sub-regional clinic in the Inupiaq village of Unalakleet, he supervises other clinicians and provides direct treatment, often traveling by plane to meet clients and coordinate services in the remote villages surrounding the “hub” city of Nome.

On Aug. 4, Droby was recognized for this work with the 2017 Excellence in Rural Psychology Award during the annual APA convention in Washington, D.C.

Person-centered, culturally competent care

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Ray M. Droby, PhD, poses with his award on August 4. From left: Dan Abrahamson, PhD, APA Practice's executive director of state advocacy; Droby; Emily Selby-Nelson, PsyD, chair of the APA Committee on Rural Health (CRH); and Tammy Barnes, staff liaison to CRH.
Droby’s clients are members of the Inupiaq, Siberian Yupik and Central Yup’ik communities. These communities face particular challenges that Droby approaches with a high degree with empathy, respect and — importantly — humility.

“Too often in the history of Alaska Natives, outsiders have come to the community, imposed harmful agendas and created conflicts,” Droby said. “It’s very important for me that I not add my name to that legacy.”

To avoid it, Droby emphasizes person-centered care in his clinical work. While deeply mindful of the issues that can affect Alaska Native communities — such as historical trauma and its ongoing effects, substance abuse and domestic violence — he is careful not to generalize his clients’ experiences and needs.

“I help clients identify and embrace the treatment goals most important to them as individuals, rather than imposing something that might not fit,” he said. “They have human problems, not Native problems.” 

Droby also helped develop the Alaska Psychology Internship Consortium (APIC), which trains and places psychology interns at NSHC sites and other sites across Alaska. The numbers of doctoral-level mental health providers in his department increased by 300 percent under his leadership as a result of this program. 

“APIC’s mission is to prepare and train psychologists to provide culturally competent care for Alaska’s diverse population,” he said. Though he is no longer involved with APIC, he “was excited to be a part of it, because it is consistent with the mission of the Indian Health Service to raise the physical, mental, social and spiritual health of Alaska Natives.” (The Indian Health Service is a component of the U.S. Public Health Service, in which he is an officer.)

That goal is consistent with his own mission as a psychologist as well.

Embodying excellence  

The Excellence in Rural Psychology Award is “presented annually to an individual who demonstrates outstanding service to rural and remote populations and who exemplifies the importance of psychological advocacy, research, education and practice.”

While Droby remains humble, his psychology colleagues clearly view him as the embodiment of these values. 

“Dr. Droby’s dedication to the rural communities he serves has been long-term, far-reaching, professional and personal,” Emily Selby-Nelson, PsyD, the chair of APA’s Committee on Rural Health, said in an APA statement announcing the award. “He has invested his career in building resources, connections and future promise for improved access to behavioral health services in rural northern Alaska.”

It seems that Droby’s character — and perhaps not just the light traffic — may have had something to do with why he enjoyed that long winter drive 22 years ago. The open, capable, thoughtful quality that guided him to northwestern Alaska in 1995 is the same one that has motivated him to provide mental health services there ever since.