Tribes receive funds for substance abuse, mental health programs

Two Alaska Native tribes on the Kenai Peninsula will receive approximately $1 million over the next five years to help address substance abuse and mental health disorders among Alaska Natives.

The Ninilchik Traditional Council and the Kenaitze Indian Tribe will both receive funds from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for their services. The grants are part of the Native Connections program, which provides funds for tribal entities to provide education and services to prevent suicidal behavior and drug abuse, support trauma recovery and to promote good mental health among Alaska Native and American Indian youth younger than 25.

The Kenaitze tribe will receive $199,960 annually, and the Ninilchik Traditional Council will receive $200,000, according to SAMHSA’s grant list.

The program isn’t brand-new to Ninilchik. Three years ago, the tribe participated in a partnership with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium to do a survey about community perception of substance abuse and suicide among youth. The survey showed that the community was in a “vague awareness” stage, said Maureen Todd, a behavioral health aide with the tribe.

The methodology for the survey, known as the Community Readiness model, was developed by the Tri-Ethnic Center for Prevention Research at Colorado State University. It ranks community engagement on a rising scale from “no awareness” to “community ownership.” Ninilchik fell on the third rung of the ladder, the step before “preplanning.”

“They know there might be a problem, but don’t really understand what that is or what it might mean,” Todd said.

Ninilchik, a small unincorporated community about 800 about 40 miles south of Soldotna, is a mixed community of both people of Alaska Native descent and general population. About 20.7 percent of the population is younger than 25, according to the 2014 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Todd said there are specific demographics of young people in the community who the tribe wants to reach with the Native Connections grant funds. The program coordinators are considering leadership programs or a summer camp where young adults ages 18–24 can be mentors to high school-age students on substance abuse and suicide prevention topics. Peer-to-peer mentoring has been a very effective strategy in the past, she said.

“What’s we’ve noticed in our community is the demographic of youth… there’s probably one or two students in every class that decided they wanted to get their GED and ended up dropping out, just hung out, around Ninilchik,” she said. “We really want to reach out to that group.”

During the first year of the grant, the tribe will convene a committee to develop protocols for the outreach programs they want to develop, she said. The outreach will include community awareness events and line up with existing efforts, like awareness months, she said.

The Ninilchik Traditional Council has worked on developing its behavioral health and substance abuse services in the last five years. At the Ninilchik Clinic, one of the care providers is trained in addiction medicine and distributes naloxone kits, which can temporarily reverse the effects of an overdose. The behavioral health services, which are open to the community at large, allow the client to self-determine goals and integrate both mental health and substance abuse treatment. Todd said the behavioral health services were helping to reduce the stigma in the community.

“…People get ashamed if they have a mental health disorder,” she said. “Reducing that stigma is really important to increasing access to care.”

The Kenaitze Indian Tribe also offers behavioral health services at its Dena’ina Wellness Center in Kenai, including individual and family therapy and sobriety support services, and are also open to the community at large.

Suicide and substance abuse disorders both disproportionately affect Alaska Natives as compared to non-Native individuals. It also affects young Alaska Native adults more than the risk growing with age, the opposite trend of the general population, according to a 2011 analysis from SAMHSA.

Although the grant is going to the tribe and will be used Alaska Native youth, it will also benefit the community at large — substance abuse and poor mental health are not confined to the tribal members, and overdoses and suicide affect everyone. The tribe has been hearing about the problems for years and wants to make the community aware as well, Todd said.

“…The tribe is all about community wellness,” she said.

Elizabeth Earl is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. She can be reached at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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