Julu 10, 2023

Children from the Zuni Pueblo lead the Pledge of Allegiance in the Zuni language in Santa Fe, N.M., on Feb. 2nd, 2018. The Behavioral Health and Wellness program allows for both Indigenous students and staff from schools and universities to access resources. Morgan Lee / AP

Behavioral health and wellness program expanded for tribal students, staff

KUNC | By Emma VandenEinde

The Bureau of Indian Education recently extended a five-year contract of a program that provides additional mental health resources for tribal youth, impacting more than 100 tribal schools in the Mountain West.

The Behavioral Health and Wellness program allows for both Indigenous students and staff from both schools and universities to access the resources. Some of those resources offered by the program include telehealth counseling, a 24/7, BIE-focused crisis hotline, and on-site crisis support. Teresia Paul, the program lead and a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota, believes it is a “gamechanger” for Indigenous communities.

“I can't tell you how many times we've had a crisis situation pop up in real time, whether it's dealing with a serious mental health challenge or dealing with a significant loss in the community,” she said. “It would have been awesome to be able to deploy our own crisis team that knows our communities.”

Some Indigenous communities believe speaking about suicide is taboo, and some cultures do not even have words that describe the act of killing oneself. But Paul said the majority of their clinical team are Indigenous people who live in the community. Whether it’s speaking their language or utilizing cultural ceremonies for healing, like sweat lodges, having members that can culturally approach the situation makes all the difference, she said.

“We're able to really engage in those types of interventions with people who are from the communities and who know how to do those interventions respectfully,” she said. “You can't just tap someone to step into that role. It has to be folks that have gained that respect.”

The idea to start the program came a few years prior during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many tribal members were looking for mental health resources. Many students and staff were not able to access resources at the time as they lived in remote locations where finding resources is not easy. It started mostly as training for staff members on wellness topics.

“We wanted to create and design the behavioral health and wellness program to be accessible to all be funded entities,” Paul said. “Prior to the pandemic, we really didn't have any programs that extended that far.”

A Native-American owned small business – Tribal Tech, LLC – was awarded the contract. It helps with the technical training and assistance needed to support the BIE’s Behavioral Health and Wellness program.

“Through this contract, it's a vehicle that we can support our students, no matter where they're from, better than what we've been able to up to this point,” said Tony Dearman, the director of the Bureau of Indian Education and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

The program is crucial for many American Indian and Alaska Native students. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 8-24 year olds in that demographic, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Paul said it’s their duty to protect their most sacred citizens - their kids.

“We're supposed to be in the business of protecting our students and making sure that they have everything they need to be successful to thrive so that they can then be the next leaders in the generation that carries our Indigenous communities to the forefront,” she said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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