US to award $35M in grants to tribes for 988 crisis line

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — Most people in Santa Clara Pueblo in northern New Mexico know each other. So when a tribal member needs mental health services or help for substance abuse, calling a tribal office might lead to an aunt, cousin or other relative.

Confidentiality is important, pueblo Gov. Michael Chavarria said shortly after federal officials visited to talk about new grant funding available for tribes to spread the word about a nationwide mental health crisis hotline.

“That's the hesitancy, but again they have to be strong enough to want to get that help,” Chavarria said Friday. “And that's what we're here for, to help them the best way we can.”

The 988 Lifeline went live in June. It's designed to be an easy number to remember, similar to 911. Instead of dispatcher sending police, firefighters or paramedics, 988 connects callers with trained mental health counselors. People also can text the number or chat with counselors online.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Friday that it's making $35 million in grant funding available to Native American and Alaska Native tribes to ensure callers receive culturally sensitive support as well as follow-up care if needed. The deadline to apply is Oct. 25.

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

The funding is part of $150 million set aside for the 988 hotline in a bill addressing gun violence and mental health that President Joe Biden signed in June. Overall, the federal government has provided $432 million to expand the network of crisis counselors and telephone infrastructure, and 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 is planning to meet with other tribal departments soon to talk about applying for a grant and what it might cover.

“Right now we just don't know,” he said. “That's the planning phase we're in right now. At least it's being afforded. It's a matter of how do we leverage that with other resources we have, fill the gaps.”

Chavarria sees a need because of the social isolation brought on by COVID-19 and the pueblo being in New Mexico, a state that has some of the highest death rates from alcohol and drug overdoses. Native Americans and Alaska Natives also are disproportionately impacted by violent crime and suicide, federal data shows.

“It has to be a well-rounded, collaborative effort to put a damper on this," Chavarria said. “Because sometimes it just revolves in that family and extended family into the community, to the local, regional and national (level). It is a challenging issue for all of us.”

Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use at Health and Human Services, was among the federal officials who visited Santa Clara and Jemez pueblos, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, this week.

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

“The thing we appreciated is that we had frank discussions,” Delphin-Rittmon said. “We encourage them and thank them when they push us, and that's helpful. I think it really helps for there to be understanding.”

There's no guarantee funding will be available in the future to raise awareness of 988 because it's appropriated through Congress, Delphin-Rittmon said. Tribes also have opportunities for funding through other federal grant programs for training for emergency response, overdose prevention and mental health, she said.

The gauge on whether the funding works as intended isn't numbers alone, she said, but anecdotal evidence from tribes.

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

The first full month of data from the 988 Lifeline in August showed an increase of 152,000 calls, chats and texts over August 2021. The average time to answer those contacts decreased from 2.5 minutes to 42 seconds, according to Health and Human Services.

Felicia Fonseca, The Associated Press