Kathleen Sikkema ’84 is at the top of her field. A renowned clinical psychologist, Duke University professor, international researcher and scholar, she’s also a pioneer in global health. Her work today focuses on conducting HIV prevention and mental health intervention trials among various groups of people in the United States and South Africa.
Growing up on a dairy farm in Illinois, Sikkema didn’t have a lot of exposure to diversity, let alone the types of issues that shape her work today: HIV and AIDS, violence, sexual trauma and the lack of resources in developing low- and middle-income countries. But while attending Central, Sikkema says her world broadened. Though still the Midwest, an area not known for diversity in the ’80s, Central afforded Sikkema a number of experiences that helped her understand more of the complexity of the world and how her work could make it a better place.
The Central experience that most stands out for her is serving as a counselor for Upward Bound for two summers. Upward Bound, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, provides support for college preparation to students who are low-income or first-generation college students.
Sikkema became a counselor “thanks to Ed Willis (professor emeritus of psychology) thinking I’d be good at it,” she says. The experience “really solidified my interest in being some kind of psychologist, counselor or teacher. It also was some of my first exposure to diversity because we had such a range of kids that came in the summer for that program.”
A psychology major, Sikkema knew she wanted to pursue some combination of teaching and counseling. At the time, she was somewhat “cautious and uncertain, trying to figure out how to speak more and feel more confident.” Being at a smaller college with close relationships to her professors provided her opportunities to grow her confidence and explore her abilities.
Willis remembers Sikkema as a talented student “who was an intellectual leader in the classroom and a social leader in the department. I knew I could count on her to help move the discussion forward.” Sikkema’s positive attitude was valued by other professors and students. “She always had a smile on her face,” Willis says, “even if she was puzzled or perplexed.”
The summers with Upward Bound encouraged Sikkema to gain more experience working with diverse populations. “Between junior and senior year, I did an internship at a domestic violence shelter, and I was really impacted by the families I worked with there,” she says. The woman who ran the program had a master’s in social work, and Sikkema decided she wanted to go to graduate school.
COMING INTO FOCUS
She headed to Illinois State University, where she became interested in health psychology. She intended to work in cancer research, but it was the 1980s. AIDS was a threat that couldn’t be ignored.
“It was ’87 when I saw my first patient who had AIDS,” she says. “And at that time, we knew so little about the medical side.” Treatment did not exist. Thus, efforts focused on mental health issues related to death and bereavement.
“I can remember very vividly sitting in the library reading journals, spread over the floor—paper journals which nobody does anymore—but realizing how AIDS really crossed areas of psychology, medicine, public health and policy,” Sikkema says.
Eventually Sikkema started researching sexual trauma and violence among people with HIV infections. She earned another master’s degree at Virginia Polytech Institute and State University and completed a Ph.D. degree in 1991. At first, her research focused on how mental health could impact preventing AIDS. Today, with treatments available, her work looks at how mental health is related to getting HIV-infected persons into treatment and staying in treatment.
“We have effective methods for prevention, medical treatment and mental health treatment, so the biggest challenge in HIV and AIDS is figuring out how to get those treatments adapted and implemented …”
– Kathleen Sikkema ’84
She says, “We have effective methods for prevention, medical treatment and mental health treatment, so the biggest challenge in HIV and AIDS is figuring out how to get those treatments adapted and implemented, especially in low- and middle-income countries. How can we get things we know can work implemented so that they actually do work?”
Most of Sikkema’s research takes place in South Africa, where she has partnered with local universities like the University of Cape Town and mentored teams doing field work.
In 2017 Sikkema was selected as the first Gosnell Family Professor of Global Health at Duke University. It’s an acknowledgment of the caliber and importance of her work, as well as her commitment to teaching and mentoring along with research. She brings together graduate students from various disciplines to work on issues with a global impact. A professor in Duke’s Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, she is also the director of the Global Mental Health Initiative and doctoral studies at the Duke Global Health Institute, and director of social and behavioral sciences in Duke’s Center for AIDS Research.
Her work underscores the importance of mental health for global health initiatives of all kinds. “We have a phrase in the field, which is ‘No health without mental health,’” she says. “We often think of mental health as secondary to physical health problems and diseases, when in fact mental health should be a key part of health and not thought of separately.”
Sikkema is a member of the Central Board of Trustees, and considers it an honor to come back and contribute as an alumna. As more Central students focus their studies on global health, Sikkema feels they are part of a movement looking at issues on a global scale. “Really, we live in an interconnected world, and students should have opportunities to understand and experience this while they are in college,” she says.
Especially in the field of mental health, the whole world is learning together. “When it comes to mental health, all countries are equal,” Sikkema says.