Washington just launched the Native and Strong Lifeline — the first program of its kind in the country that is dedicated to serving American Indian and Alaska Native people in crisis.
Operated by Volunteers of America Western Washington, one of Washington’s three 988 crisis centers, the line is available 24/7 for people who call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and is specifically for Washington’s American Indian and Alaska Native communities.
“I chose to work for Native and Strong because suicide rates in Indian country are incredibly high, and I want to remind my people that resilience is instilled into them,” said Heaven Arbuckle, a tribal crisis counselor for the Native and Strong Lifeline and a descendant of the Tulalip Tribes. “We, as the clinicians, get to be the voice many of us needed to hear. If I can save a life with a conversation, then I am happy to talk to as many people as I can.”
Native American and Alaska Native people across the country are disproportionately impacted by suicide, as the ethnic group with the highest suicide rates in 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Among Washington residents in 2020, non-Hispanic American Indian and Alaska Native people had a 34 percent higher suicide rate than the general population, according to the Washington State Department of Health.
“Our suicide rates, American Indian Alaskan Native people, are higher than everybody else’s,” said Rochelle Williams, the tribal operations manager with Volunteers of America Western Washington, an enrolled member of the Ehattesaht First Nation and descendant of the Tulalip Tribes. “This is for Native people, and it’s operated by Native people.”
Funding for the Native and Strong Lifeline came out of House Bill 1477, which helped to implement the national 988 lifeline and expand behavioral health crisis response and suicide-prevention services across the state.
Hiring tribal crisis counselors for the Native and Strong Lifeline began in February, and the line officially launched this month, according to Williams. The two management staff and all 12 crisis counselors are Native American.
“As Native Americans, we understand one another with regard to historical loss symptoms, such as depression, substance dependence, substance abuse, dysfunctional parenting and as a result of that cross-generational transmission of trauma from historical losses,” said Crystal James, a tribal crisis counselor and member of the Navajo Nation. “I feel like it’s easier for us to connect one on one with those calling in seeking help to heal. And that’s what we’re all about.”
Although the Native and Strong Lifeline just recently launched, the tribal crisis counselors have all been taking calls for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline since July, Williams said. Now, the goal is to continue to spread the word so more Native American people across the state know that this resource exists.
Down the line, James and other staff at the Native and Strong Lifeline hope to pave the way for other states to create similar resources for Native communities.
“The biggest thing … is getting this option available nationwide versus just in Washington state,” James said. “Having this type of lifeline, a number that they can call and speak to somebody to get help, it’s moving in the right direction and helping us heal from our past trauma or generational trauma.”