The United States will give $35 million to tribes for 988 mental health crisis lines

Children’s bookmark with the suicide and crisis emergency phone number 988 is shown by Lance Neiberger, a volunteer with the Natrona County Suicide Prevention Task Force, as they talk about mental health and suicide awareness

Most people in the Santa Clara Pueblo in northern New Mexico know each other. So when a tribe member needs mental health services or substance abuse assistance, calling a tribal office may lead to an aunt, cousin, or other relative.

Confidentiality is important, Pueblo Governor Michael Chavarria said shortly after federal officials visited to talk about new grant funding available to tribes to get the word out about a nationwide mental health crisis hotline.

“That’s the reluctance, but again they have to be strong enough to want to get that help,” Chavarria said on Friday. “And that’s what we’re here for, to help them in the best possible way.”

988 Lifeline launched in June. It’s designed to be an easy-to-remember number, similar to 911. Instead of the dispatcher sending the police, firefighters, or paramedics, the 988 connects callers with trained mental health counselors. People can also send the number or chat with online advisors.

The US Department of Health and Human Services announced Friday that it is providing $35 million in grants to Native American and Alaska Native tribes to ensure callers receive culturally sensitive support as well as follow-up care if needed. The application deadline is October 25.

Access will be limited, a fact often criticized by tribes who say they are forced to compete against each other over limited resources. Any of 574 federally recognized tribes are eligible to apply, along with tribal organizations. Up to 100 scholarships will be awarded.

The funding is part of the $150 million allocated to Hotline 988 in a bill addressing gun violence and mental health that President Joe Biden signed in June. Overall, the federal government provided $432 million to expand the network of crisis advisors and telephone infrastructure, and to help educate the public on the 988 hotline — some of which was available to states and territories as grants.

Chavarria said the tribal police chief plans to meet with other tribal administrations soon to talk about applying for a grant and what it might cover.

“At the moment we don’t know,” he said. “That’s the planning stage that we’re in at the moment. At least it’s being saved. It’s a question of how we leverage that with the other resources we have, and fill in the gaps.”

Chavarria sees the need due to the social isolation created by COVID-19 and the presence of the pueblo in New Mexico, a state with some of the highest death rates from alcohol and drug overdoses. Federal data shows that Native Americans and Alaska Natives are also disproportionately affected by violent crime and suicide.

“It should be a comprehensive, collaborative effort to put an end to this,” Chavarria said. “Because sometimes it’s just about that family and the extended family in the community, at the local, regional, national level. It’s a difficult issue for all of us.”

Miriam Delphine Ritmon, assistant undersecretary for mental health and substance use at Health and Human Services, was among the federal officials who visited Santa Clara and Jimmy Pueblos, Albuquerque, New Mexico, this week.

She said some of the challenges she’s heard from tribal leaders in getting funding include a lack of resources to apply for grants, unreliable internet and cell phone services, and a widespread shortage of mental health professionals and culturally appropriate care.

“One thing we appreciated is that we had frank discussions,” Delphine Richmond said. “We encourage them and thank them when they pay us, and that’s helpful. I think it’s really helpful to have an understanding.”

Delphin-Rittmon said there is no guaranteed funding that will be available in the future to raise awareness of the 988 because it has been allocated through Congress. She said the tribes also have opportunities for funding through other federal grant programs for training in emergency response, overdose prevention, and mental health.

She said the measure of whether funding is working as intended is not numbers alone, but undocumented evidence from tribes.

The 988 system is built on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a network of crisis centers where counselors send millions of calls each year. The 1-800-273-8255 number still works, even with the 988 in place.

The first full month of data from 988 Lifeline in August showed an increase of 152,000 calls, conversations and texts through August 2021. The average time to respond to these contacts decreased from 2.5 minutes to 42 seconds, according to Health and Human Services.

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