A rural advocate retires

Thomasine Heitkamp has spent 39 years helping communities

Thomasine Heitkamp

Thomasine Heitkamp. UND archival image.

Shauna Reitmeier will always remember going to Thomasine Heitkamp’s class the day of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“She mobilized the class to work on a project for schools, daycares and parents to support their children and students,” said Reitmeier, now chief executive officer of the Northwestern Mental Health Center in Crookston, Minn. “She took a horrific assault on our perception of safety and brought resources to help the community. That is an example of the legacy that Thomasine has brought to our rural communities.”

“Thomasine is one of my SHEROS,” said Brenda Mack, assistant professor of social work at Bemidji State University. “Her mentorship during my undergraduate and graduate studies showed me what it’s like to lead with integrity, kindness, compassion, and a goal of lifting others up. I’m doing my best to pay it forward in honor of Thomasine, and positively influence the next generation of social workers.”

A 39-year career

Heitkamp, UND Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor, is retiring this month after 39 years at UND. She has brought in millions of dollars to North Dakota – $12 million in just the last five years – to help rural and tribal communities combat addiction, mental health issues, and to improve health. She later expanded that work to tribal communities across Great Plains and mountain states.

For her research and service on substance abuse and its impacts, Heitkamp received the 2019 UND Foundation/Thomas J. Clifford Faculty Achievement Award for Excellence in Research, and the 2014 award for Outstanding Faculty Development and Service.

In her role as a UND Strategic Plan Grand Challenge champion for rural health & communities, Heitkamp developed a team of UND scholars from the College of Nursing & Professional Development, the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences and the Center for Rural Health to create the Behavioral Health Bridge, among other resources, to provide behavioral health expertise and services across the region.

Heitkamp focuses on research that directly benefits communities across North Dakota. A five-year, $3.8 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), helps medical and mental health providers quickly screen patients for alcohol and drug issues and set up referrals.

“Thomasine is a remarkable advocate for mental health across HHS region 8 states,” said Heather Gotham, director of the Mental Health Technology Transfer Center Network Coordinating Office and a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine. “She has built relationships and connections across mental health, tribal communities, criminal justice, child welfare, and substance use providers, bringing them together to understand and support people with and at risk for mental health and substance use disorders. Her co-leading the Mountain Plains Mental Health Technology Transfer Center has resulted in significant increases in the ability of the workforce to provide effective and compassionate mental health services. She is an amazing leader whose voice will be greatly missed.”

Thomasine Heitkamp takes part in a 2017 panel on the University’s Grand Challenges, one of many panels she was a member of over the course of her UND career. UND archival image.

A passion for social justice

Heitkamp was raised in Mantador, N.D., near Wahpeton, one of seven children.

“When the bookmobile came to town on Wednesday in the summer months, it was a glorious day, because we didn’t have a library in town,” Heitkamp remembered.

“My family was a tenth of the population of Mantador”” she said. “My mom was a school cook and my dad was a janitor. My social justice views came from my parents, who were heavily civic-minded. My dad helped build the VFW, built the concession stand at the park in Mantador that’s named after him and he established a rural water treatment plant that’s named after him.”

Her mother, Heitkamp said, had once worked in a medical office as a receptionist.

“If someone was injured, it was a lot of expense and a lot of inconvenience to drive to the doctor. So, they brought their child to my mom to see if they needed stitches, because it was a huge deal go to the emergency room 45 minutes away,” she said.

She earned social work degrees at UND and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and then came back to UND as a faculty member after working in the field of child protection in Burleigh and Morton Counties of North Dakota.

“My undergraduate degree from UND in social work is absolutely the foundation of what built my career,” she said. “When I went to graduate school, I had some of the best preparation of anyone in the graduate program.”

Thomasine Heitkamp and Meridee Shogren

In one of her many collaborations, Thomasine Heitkamp, professor in the UND College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines, teamed with fellow UND scholars such as Meridee Schogren (right), a clinical associate professor of nursing, and others to bolster mental health services and combat opioid addiction in rural America. UND archival image.

A positive approach

Heitkamp has a reputation for tackling tough problems with a creative and positive approach.

“I’m evidence-based in how I approach problems,” Heitkamp said. “Staying positive helps you solve the problem better. Negativity hurts organizational well-being. I’m not saying you shouldn’t thoroughly look at the problem. But, when I think about a problem in a community, whether it’s a suicide cluster or an increase in deaths from opioids, I think about all the people in that community who care to improve that community and will engage to help. That includes looking at the resources, responding with cultural humility, and building on the social and human capital that exists. I’m just a piece of that puzzle.”

“She is a powerful force and voice for those who are marginalized in society,” said LaVonne Fox, masters in education instructor/developer at Turtle Mountain Community College. “Many may see a tough shell, which she has and needs, but they stop there and do not see the empathy and compassion within. I know several major projects we have worked on would never have occurred if it was not for her vision and tenacity.”

Fox said those projects include a webinar to promote positive mental health in Native American children and youth, another to strengthen resilience among Indigenous youth, and a third to build resilience among tribal law enforcement officers through cultural interventions.

“Thomasine tirelessly advances her programs and is humble in her work,” said Shawnda Schroeder, associate director of research & evaluation at the UND Center for Rural Health. “Her focus on program development to address mental health and addiction is clearly a passion more than a career, and she will leave very big shoes to fill locally, in the state, and nationally.”

“Thomasine has a dauntless passion for promoting and improving behavioral health care for rural communities across North Dakota, the surrounding states, and beyond,” said David Terry, program coordinator for the Mountain Plains Mental Health Technology Transfer Center in the UND College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines. “I never attended a conference with Thomasine where she didn’t know at least half of the social workers in the room, and often joke that she knows most of North Dakota. Her impact on our University system, our state behavioral health care system, and our region is truly amazing and will be missed.”

“Thomasine is passionate about social justice and equality, and also has a kind and generous heart,” said Bruce Reeves, director of field education and assistant professor of social work at UND. “When she was the chair of Social Work and the holidays rolled around, she gave gifts to all the faculty and staff in the department. One year it was poinsettias, but she was careful to make sure those who are not Christian received a poinsettia that was a different color than the traditional red and green associated with Christmas. It was a little thing – most would have been fine with the traditional colors, but it was very thoughtful of her.”

Though she’s retiring, Heitkamp plans to continue some of her work.

“I’ll continue to write,” she said. “I’ll probably do some training. “Dr. Andy McLean, a really smart psychiatrist in SMHS, said, ‘Take everything off your plate and decide what you want to put back on.’ So we’ll see what I put back on. I plan to get more rest and definitely not check emails when I get up.

“I will miss the opportunity to be creative. You know, I really like thorny problems. And, I like being a creative problem solver and using community strengths to do that work. But I’ll take it slower, and enjoy more time for myself and with my wonderful and very large family, including husband of 38 years, Al.”