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When Melanie James, Diné, a tribal crisis counselor at the Native and Strong Lifeline, answered her first phone call for the line back in November, it was from a mother struggling to get help for her child who was dealing with suicidal ideation. In the past, the mother had reached out to the 988 lifeline, but had been disappointed with the lack of knowledge about tribal and culturally specific resources.

Native and Strong Lifeline exists to provide those resources.

“She was so grateful that I was Native American because she said in a way, there is still stigma about mental health and the struggles about mental health amongst Native American communities,” Melanie James said. “I feel that Native and Strong Lifeline is one of the stepping stones that will help break that barrier.”

In response to the growing mental health crisis, Volunteers of America Western Washington, one of three of the state’s 988 crisis centers, launched the Native and Strong Lifeline in November 2022. The program is dedicated to serving Native communities across the state.

“There is a taboo of discussing suicide within Indigenous communities,” said Crystal James, Diné, a tribal crisis counselor shift lead at the lifeline. “It’s been great to be a catalyst to go from an area of taboo to getting to a journey of self-healing.”

Since launching, the Native and Strong Lifeline has received over 1,200 calls from across the state, according to Mia Klick, Tulalip and Nuu-Chah-Nulth descendant, the Native and Strong Lifeline coordinator. The lifeline has 14 tribal crisis counselors, but is in the process of expanding up to 18.

Working to support Native communities across Washington, the lifeline is run by Native crisis counselors, most of whom have their own lived experiences dealing with mental health struggles.

“(Growing up) we didn’t know about mental health care — we didn’t have that option or that choice,” said Robert Coberly, Tulalip, a tribal crisis counselor with the lifeline. “Ever since I started my mental health journey, it’s just become more manageable. I can handle things better when they happen.”

The conditions in which people live, learn, work and play — referred to as social determinants of health — impact the physical and mental health of people. These can include discrimination, poverty, limited affordable housing, lack of educational opportunities and barriers to healthcare. Many of these factors can lead to an increased suicide risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rates of suicide are highest among Native people in the United States and suicide is the ninth leading cause of death among Native people, according to the CDC. Among Native youth between 10 and 24, suicide is the second leading cause of death, according to the Volunteers of America Western Washington website.

Between 2018 and 2021, suicide rates increased among Native people by 26 percent, according to CDC findings, while suicide rates among White people decreased by 3.9 percent in that same time period.

Structural legacies of settler colonialism, including forced relocation, land dispossession, assimilation, racism and other traumas, still impact Native communities today — leading to disproportionate rates of mental health struggles for Native people.

A lifeline for Native people, by Native people

At Native and Strong Lifeline, having a team of all Native tribal crisis counselors is an important part of the work they do.

Many of the callers of the lifeline express a feeling of disconnect from their own heritage and are searching for a sense of cultural connection, according to Klick. At the Native and Strong Lifeline, tribal counselors help find resources to aid callers with that sense of connection.

“Imagine not being in touch with your culture at all. It’s such a big part of who we are,” Klick said. “The biggest ask that I know of, is they ask for cultural connection activities.”

In helping callers find events and cultural centers in their area, tribal crisis counselors work closely with and often refer callers to the Washington Indian Behavioral Health Hub, a resource line designed for Native people.

At the hub, representatives work to compile a list of cultural resources around the state — this includes looking into services to address hunger prevention, homeless prevention, behavioral health needs and cultural activities such as powwows.

“All of this is mental health — if you don’t have money for food, if you don’t have a place to stay, it can weigh on you,” said Clarissa Young-Weiser, Tulalip tribal citizen and Shoshone-Bannock, Eastern Shoshone and Quileute descendent.

Young-Weiser is one of three tribal hub coordinators at the Washington Indian Behavioral Health Hub. While the hub does serve as a connector, it does not provide direct access to mental health treatment for individuals. Instead, coordinators work to find out what resources are available and direct callers to them.

Providing hope through lived experience

Recently, Coberly completed his training to become a certified peer counselor. With the official license, Coberly is encouraged to draw upon his own lived experiences with mental health struggles to provide hope and support for others on their recovery journey.

“I think that lived experience is pretty important,” Coberly said. “We’ve all got our own stuff that we’ve gone through and that we’ve overcome and that we’re working on.”

Coberly enjoys being able to share some of his story with callers, and provide a sense of hope for them in the process.

Crystal James, a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence, has been able to connect with many of the people who call that are struggling with similar lived experiences as she opens up to them about how she has been in their shoes. The ability to be vulnerable and share part of her story with callers often helps them to feel validated and seen.

Answering phone calls from many people that may be in one of the hardest moments of their lives, is heavy work, and can bring up some of the counselors’ own past traumas. The team at Native and Strong Lifeline has worked together to create a safe space for themselves to process.

Twice a month, the team gets together in a talking circle, to share about their experiences and some of the calls they have taken.

“(The talking circles) are a great resource. We get to laugh sometimes, we say jokes, and then we get serious,” Melanie James said.

“We use humor to help us get through the pain,” Crystal James added.

Though the lifeline is still in its infancy, just six months old, counselors shared that it has so far made a big impact on the lives of many people across the state. Whether a caller is in crisis, considering suicide, or just need someone to talk to, the Native and Strong Lifeline is available 24/7 to be provide support.

For Washington residents:

If you or someone you know is in crisis or considering suicide, call 988 and dial option 4 to speak with a Native crisis counselor. Counselors are available 24 hours a day.

To learn about a variety of resources for Native community members across Washington state, visit voaww.org/tribalservices or call 1-866-491-1683 to speak to a representative from the Washington Indian Behavioral Health Hub.

Lead image: From left, Robert Coberly, Tulalip, tribal crisis counselor; Heaven Arbuckle, tribal crisis counselor lead; and Arbuckle's husband, Brandon Hachett, holding their son Roman. The group had an information table for the Native and Strong Lifeline at a recent Missing and Murdered Indigenous People event in Tulalip, Washington. (Photo courtesy of Native and Strong Lifeline)

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...