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Omaha Magazine

Ronn Johnson: Fighting the Good Fight for Mental Health, Diversity & Injustice

Dec 27, 2020 03:20PM ● By Leo Adam Biga
Ronn Johnson in his office, fireplace

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Ronn Johnson, a biracial clinical psychologist during COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, is squarely in the middle of societal unrest. 

He is a Creighton University associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and associate dean of diversity and inclusion in the School of Medicine. In response to the George Floyd killing, he wrote an open letter to the C.U. medical community pointing out systemic racism is pervasive in America. The message he wanted to convey is that “this doesn’t occur in a vacuum, this has been occurring for a long time—the big difference being this was a public execution essentially.”

He believes historical or generational trauma is a real phenomenon among people of color who’ve endured untold trauma and indignity. No matter a person of color’s achievements, race remains an issue.  

“If I somehow forget I’m Black and Native American (he’s part Choctaw and Cherokee), some experience will quickly remind me of that. I can’t just be a professor and associate dean, I’m a Black professor or associate. That’s the way it works in this country. I don’t know if we’ll ever become a post-racial country. Right now we’re in turmoil. But I believe there are enough good-minded, well-intentioned people, just as there are good cops, that we can eventually take back our country—because I think we’ve lost it.”

In addition to his C.U. duties, he treats veterans at the Omaha VA Medical Center. The noncombat problems patients present there speak to this unstable moment in time.

“Folks are feeling isolated, disconnected. A lot stay home with their kids. It’s really a problem. They’re struggling with all this stuff,” Johnson said. “One thing I push them on is, what are you doing to take care of yourself? I try to get them to be very intentional about taking time to do self-care and things that give a sense of enjoyment, pleasure. It may be little, simple things to recharge your battery or fill up your tank again because all this drains people.”

His psychological profile of America is alarming. “The diagnosis is not a positive one,” he said. “There are just too many negative markers (for anxiety, fear, depression).” Moving forward, he says, “we’re going to have to recover from the economic consequences of COVID. That’s going to be huge.”

Johnson, 69, has filled academic and clinical posts in the western United States and Midwest. He came to Creighton from the University of San Diego, where he was an associate professor in the School of Leadership and Educational Sciences. He actually lived in Nebraska before. He was at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before resuming his career on the West Coast. He and his wife moved back to Nebraska in 2016 when a VA slot opened. He later joined the C.U. faculty. He earned the diversity and inclusion post there as the result of a national search the school conducted.

He is most proud of his clinical work, in which he serves veterans.

“My clinical work is all devoted to working with veterans,” he said. “I love working with them. Their physical and emotional wounds are the true cost of war. My biggest regret is not serving in the military. My stepdad and uncles did. I had an opportunity to, but was too much of a knucklehead to take advantage of it. This work is my way of giving back. My nickname in the VA is ‘Dirty Harry’ because I take the cases no one else wants.”

Toni Vondra, VA mental health social work supervisor, said Johnson is “well-respected by colleagues, interns, residents, and patients because he works hard to connect with others.” She added, “His responsive insights are critical to getting veterans the required mental health services. He supervises residents’ psychotherapy and developed the transdiagnostic group. He welcomes thorny cases that are challenging to some providers.”

Trauma is among the areas Johnson researches and publishes about. He’s well-acquainted with trauma himself. At age 10, his father, an engineer, died of cancer.  

“That was a major marker in my life. I still have reactions to that loss,” Johnson said. “He was my protector, my mentor, my dad, so there’s all these emotional connections. I could never make sense of why that happened.” 

Johnson grew up one of 10 siblings on the west side of Chicago during the civil rights era. 

“Typical inner-city life—gang violence, other kinds of violence, poverty, poor performing schools. I witnessed the riots in Chicago. I saw people murdered, killed. It was pretty rough-going.”

His way out was academics and basketball, through a scholarship to Biola University, a small private Christian school in Southern California.

Johnson gained an interest in psychology, and, a few graduate degrees later, he found himself making a career of it.

The former adjunct professor in the Homeland Security Department at San Diego State researches anti-terrorism and forensic psychology. He tries getting into the minds of terrorists and criminals for insights into what make them harm others.  

In service of public health, he’s opened clinics in underserved communities where he’s worked. He intends doing that here. He’s also planning a Trail of Tears Medical Conference. It will commemorate the infamous forced removal of Native Americans from their heritage lands in the 19th century and explore issues today’s Native people confront accessing quality health care. 

This clinician and academic enjoys his work. He’s only a year into trying to make C.U.’s School of Medicine a more diverse, inclusive place. He aims to build a campus culture receptive to supporting students, faculty, and staff of color. He feels the administration is committed to that change, though he concedes, “It will take time.” 

This article first appeared in the 60 Plus section of the January/February 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.