Ne-Ia-Shing’s First Psychiatrist

By Brett Larson, February 10, 2017

Dr. Melvina Bissonette is one of two new doctors at Ne-Ia-Shing Clinic in District I. She and Dr. Lacey Running Hawk (who was featured in last month’s Inaajimowin) both joined the Ne-Ia-Shing team last fall.

Dr. Bissonette is a physician whose specialty is psychiatry. A psychiatrist is a medically-qualified practitioner who has spent four to five years training to be a doctor, followed by another four to six years of further training in helping people with psychological problems.

Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists’ main job is not one-on-one counseling or therapy, but diagnosis, assessment and treatment of mental illness.

For Dr. Bissonette, the desire to be a doctor dates back to childhood.

“At a young age I remember saying I wanted to be a doctor,” she said. “I don’t know where that came from, but I always liked going to the doctor. As I got older, I developed a sense that I wanted to take care of people, and I recognized the health disparities that affect Native Americans and other people in rural, impoverished communities. I had a desire to help, and I didn’t have people tell me I was ridiculous. People said I was smart enough to do it.”

Dr. Bissonette’s father is Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge and her mother is Navajo. She was raised on the Navajo Reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico.

She admits that she was “clueless” about how to become a doctor when she left home for college in Albuquerque, but she figured it out quickly. “I realized there was a medical school at the University of New Mexico, so I went there and asked what I needed to do,” she said. “I went home and made my schedule out for the next four years, what classes I needed to take and when I needed to take them.”

When it came time to choose a specialty, psychiatry was at the top of the list. Dr. Bissonette had majored in psychology as an undergraduate because the usual pre-med biology focus didn’t seem very exciting. “Psychology was captivating,” she said, “but it meant I had to take a few extra classes to qualify for medical school.”

“During medical school I found the course on mental health interesting, and as I went through residency I always gravitated to the patients who had mental illness,” she said. “I always found that to be more interesting, and I noticed it was the one area where you really got to know your patients. It was fulfilling to watch them improve and to be there with them.”

Dr. Bissonette is a long way from New Mexico, but she’s found a second home in Minnesota.

“When I came up here to interview in October of 2006, I flew into Duluth, and when I got off the plane I thought it was beautiful,” she said. “I had never seen so many trees or so much water. I felt a sense of belonging, like ‘This is home. This is where I needed to be.’”

As she was finishing her residency, Dr. Bissonette sent a letter to her Indian Health Service mentor, who helped her make a connection with Ne-Ia-Shing, which was seeking to add a psychiatrist to the medical staff. Dr. Bissonette is enjoying the challenge of building a psychiatry practice in a clinic that’s never had one.

“I’m here to help,” she said. “I try to be very open minded and non-judgmental, to help people on their journey to achieve balance and wellness.”

When she’s not busy with work, she loves to read Harry Potter books and ride horses, but lately she’s busy caring for her 9-month-old baby.

Dr. Bissonette’s main interest outside the clinic, though, is education. “We recently started a new child initiative group, hoping to get the community to invest more in the children of the community,” she said. “I feel passionate about that. The more you invest in children the more you improve your community.”