The nation’s first mental and behavioral health crisis line 988 tailored to Indigenous and Indigenous peoples, operated by an all-Indigenous team, will go live starting Thursday for residents of Washington.
A group of 16 people will lead the Native and Strong Crisis Lifeline, which fits into the existing Hotline 988 which debuted this summer. Now 988 callers will have the option to press 4 to connect with a counselor who is knowledgeable about “historical, intergenerational trauma, self-care [and] more traditional elements,” said Rochelle Williams, tribal operations manager for Volunteers of America Western Washington, a registered member of the Ehattesaht First Nation and a descendant of the Tulalip Tribes.
Indigenous peoples have endured decades of suffering from the effects of Western colonization and displacement from their traditional lands, languages and cultures, Williams said. This has led to higher rates of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicide.
Running Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that American Indians and Alaska Natives have the highest suicide rate compared to their non-Native counterparts with 23.9 suicide deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 16.9 deaths for whites, 7.8 for blacks and 7.5 for Hispanics.
That’s why specialist advisers are so essential, Williams said.
In addition to the regular training that all crisis counselors receive, staff are trained to be sensitive to language. For example, many tribal communities use slang or allude to abuse rather than saying it outright, Williams said.
“One of the things we talk about is the word ‘disturb,'” she said. [if] someone is “annoying” you, maybe picking on you… intimidating you. In many Indigenous communities, this could indicate a more likely sexual assault.
Because they expect fewer callers on the tribal line, counselors on the new line said they will be sure to take their time, not rush or worry about the duration of a call, unlike other 988 counselors who may have to rush. when the calls start piling up.
When developing a self-care plan, New Line counselors may also offer callers ideas about traditional medicine, cultural activities like dancing or prayer, eating their traditional foods, or talking with an elder.
“Whatever your cultural traditions are, they are encouraged and welcomed,” Williams said.
That’s also true for the counselors themselves, said Mia Klick, lifeline coordinator and descendant of the Tulalip Tribes and Nuu-Chah-Nulth First Nations.
Klick will encourage counselors to smudge between calls, a practice in some Indigenous communities where plants or resin are burned to spiritually cleanse people and places. She will also debrief with them after particularly difficult calls and ask counselors to look within.
“It’s up to them to reflect on their own biases and really unpack their own story with the trauma,” Klick said. “So following their training takes a bit longer because there are a lot of emotions.”
To fully outfit the team, Klick and Williams looked outside of Washington State. Some counselors will work remotely from the Navajo Nation, others will be closer and affiliated with the Quileute Tribe, Snoqualmie Indian Tribe, and Yakama Nation, among others.
This is doubly useful: first, some tribes are small enough that calling a local mental health service may mean meeting neighbors or relatives. Having counselors from all over the United States will mean that callers are guaranteed greater privacy.
Second, it created a larger pool of hires. Hiring mental health staff is notoriously difficult, as counselors and social workers leave the field for higher-paying jobs in private practice or move into other industries.
“I’m so proud that we’ve been able to bring together a whole team of really strong Indigenous voices who are going to stand up for callers,” 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 residents of Washington, with text and chat features to follow soon. Klick also hopes it will inspire other states to develop similar programs.
She affectionately points to the tribal line’s logo: an eagle designed by local artist Lummi with the words “Two ears, one heart.”
“Our elders always said, ‘God gave you one mouth and two ears for a reason,'” Klick said.
“We were made to listen, it’s deep in our DNA, to heal, to help and to listen.”