Community: Lifting each other up to support mental health in times of crisis

In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, the health of our communities is also threatened by stress, isolation, mental distress, political and cultural unrest and other responses to critical incidents that elicited strong emotional responses.  

We all know that good physical health is important for a healthy, happy life. Equally vital, yet, sometimes ignored or misunderstood is a person’s behavioral health and wellness. This year it was more apparent how critical incidents, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, can affect our mental health. 

ANTHC has designed behavioral health programs to promote mental health and wellness in Alaska Native individuals, families and communities through culturally relevant training, education and program assistance for our Tribal health partners across the state. One of these programs is the Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team. 

Critical Incident Stress Management 

Since 2018, ANTHC had helped communities and organizations address specific circumstances with our Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team, a group of trained counselors, by deploying teams to locations for in-person counseling to support people after traumatic events. With travel limited and the widespread extent of trauma from COVID-19 response, the CISM team opened up their services to virtual counseling sessions for individuals, families and organizations across the Tribal health system. 

CISM started as a way to support health care providers and first responders build skills in resilience and bounce back after a crisis. With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting many parts of our lives and nearly everyone in our communities the CISM team knew that they had to help prevent this crisis from leading to the harmful effects of chronic stress. 

Early in the response to the pandemic, trained CISM counselors opened up their phone lines, email inboxes and Zoom video chats to connect with people with common stress symptoms and reactions: Fear and anxiety; feeling isolated and alone; sadness and grief; exhaustion, irritability and anger; feeling confused, forgetful and distracted. 

While CISM sessions aren’t therapy, it is a way for people to have a safe, healthy place to process their mental state and find ways to build healthy response strategies. Talking to someone can have therapeutic benefits and pave the way for future recovery and resilience in the face of adversity. These skills help protect mental health before the negative effects become harmful to our overall health.  

In 2020, the CISM team delivered hundreds of hours of community care response. 

Addressing behavioral health needs across Alaska 

The ANTHC Behavioral Health program works with partners across the state to provide education and assistance for Behavioral Health Aides (BHA), clinical supervisors and directors who provide much-needed, community-based behavioral health and wellness services. Additionally, the program offers partners technical assistance to better understand and implement a behavioral health program in primary care settings and other community-based services. 

ANTHC manages education and training for BHAs to become the counselors, health educators and advocates their communities need. BHAs can help address individual and community-based behavioral health needs, including those related to alcohol, drug and tobacco misuse as well as mental health problems such as grief, depression, suicide, and related issues. BHAs seek to achieve balance in the community by integrating their sensitivity to cultural needs with specialized training in behavioral health concerns and approaches to treatment. 

Long term, ANTHC would like to build capacity across the state to respond to critical incidents and ongoing behavioral health needs. This can include responding to communities that request help or providing support to communities building their own behavioral health support networks. The health of our communities relies on us coming together to find community solutions.