The nation’s first 988 Mental and Behavioral Health Crisis Line designed specifically for Indigenous and Indigenous people, and operated by an all-Indigenous team, will be launched starting Thursday for Washington residents.
A group of 16 people will operate the original and powerful crisis lifeline, which is incorporated into the menu Hotline 988 that debuted this summer. Now, 988 callers will have the option to press 4 to connect with a counselor familiar with “historic intergenerational trauma, self-care.” [and] “More traditional elements,” said Rochelle Williams, director of tribal operations at American Volunteers in Western Washington, a registered member of the Ihatsahat First Nation and descended from the Tulalip Tribes.
Williams said that indigenous peoples have endured decades of suffering from the effects of Western colonization and displacement from their traditional lands, language and cultures. It led to higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide.
Stream data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that American Indians and Alaskan Natives had the highest suicide rate compared to their non-Native American counterparts with 23.9 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people compared to 16.9 deaths for white people, 7.8 for black people, and 7.5 for black people Hispanics.
That’s why specialist advisors are important, Williams said.
In addition to the regular training that all crisis counselors receive, staff are trained to be careful with language. Williams, for example, said that many tribal communities have slang or allude to abuse rather than explicitly stating it.
“One of the things we talk about is the word ‘harassment,'” she said. “Outside, [if] Someone is ‘annoying’ you, maybe harassing you… they are bullying you. In a lot of Indigenous societies, this may indicate the potential for sexual assault.”
Because they expect fewer callers on the tribal line, new line counselors said they will make sure they take their time, not rush, or worry about how long a call will take, unlike other 988 counselors who may have to rush out when calls start piling up.
When developing a self-care plan, counselors on the new line will also be able to offer callers ideas about traditional medicine, cultural activities such as dancing, praying, eating their traditional food, or dealing with an elder.
“Whatever your cultural traditions are, they are encouraged and welcomed,” Williams said.
This also applies to the advisors themselves, said Mia Klick, Lifeline Coordinator and a descendant of the Tulalip Tribes and First Nations No Chah Nult.
Klick would encourage counselors to smear between calls, a practice among some Aboriginal communities where plants or resin are burned to spiritually cleanse people and places. You will also debrief with them after particularly difficult calls and ask counselors to look inward.
“It’s up to them to reflect on their own biases and decipher their history with trauma,” Klick said. “So getting through their training takes a little bit longer because there are a lot of emotions.”
To fully supply the team, Click and Williams looked outside Washington State. Some advisors will work remotely from the Navajo Nation, others will be closer and join the Quileute Tribe, Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, and Yakama Nation, among others.
This is doubly useful: First, some tribes are small enough that contacting the local mental health service can mean meeting up with neighbors or relatives. Having consultants from all over the United States means that callers have a greater guarantee of privacy.
Second, it created a larger recruitment pool. Recruitment for mental health professionals is notoriously difficult because counselors and social workers leave room for higher paying jobs in private practice or move to other industries altogether.
“I am very proud that we were able to put together a whole team of very strong original voices who will stand up for the people they come into contact with,” Klick said. “They know the pain, they know the trauma, they know what the caller is going through…and that’s going to make a huge difference.”
So far, this phone service will only be available to Washington residents, with texting and chatting features coming soon. Klick also hopes this will inspire other countries to develop similar programmes.
She fondly refers to the emblem of the tribal calligraphy: an eagle designed by a local Lomi artist with the words “two ears, one heart”.
“Our elders always used to say, ‘God gave you a mouth and two ears for a reason,'” Klick said.
“We were created to listen, it’s deeply ingrained in our DNA, to heal, help and listen.”