Deanna Dunham, Mohawk member of Six Nations of the Grand River. Photo provided by Kids Help Phone.

‘Tomorrow will be better’: Kids Help Phone expands services to reach more Indigenous youth

Deanna Dunham, a Mohawk member of Six Nations of the Grand River, says as demand rises for Kids Help Phone services during the pandemic, the organization is looking to become more inclusive

A Mohawk director at Kids Help Phone is working to increase awareness and services to reach more Indigenous youth. 

Deanna Dunham, Mohawk, member of Six Nations of the Grand River, is the director of the Indigenous initiatives and equity program at Kids Help Phone.

Dunham says Kids Help Phone’s 24/7 support line has seen a rise in calls over the past year. The support group has a goal to increase counselling and crisis response sessions with Indigenous youth to 20 per cent of all sessions annually by 2022.

“We have not yet reached that mark but we are making good progress,” says Dunham. 

Kids Help Phone is a charitable organization that provides online and telephone counselling and volunteer-led, text-based support to youth across Canada. 

The Kids Help Phone has 2,200 active crisis responders, and 150 counsellors on staff, according to Dunham, as well as a team of over 100 Indigenous crisis responders. 

Since October 2020, Indigenous youth who text or message the Kids Help Line can specify ‘First Nations’ if they prefer to be directly linked to an Indigenous crisis responder. 

The staff are encouraged by youth feedback, says Dunham, who shares an example of a message she received after speaking with a youth in crisis, who told her they were happy to speak with another Indigenous person.  

A First Nations wellness specialist is on staff, to provide support to Indigenous responders, and also share training with non-Indigenous staff. This approach is in-progress, with a goal to have full time Métis and Inuit wellness specialists hired this year. There is also an acting Inuit wellness specialist until that hiring is completed, says Dunham.

“Their job is to provide ongoing support and training to our counselors so that they have a strong understanding of the daily realities that First Nations youth face,” says Dunham. 

Cultural competency training is an ongoing need, with a goal to ensure counselors and crisis responders are fully prepared to support Indigenous youth, says Dunham. 

“That training isn’t something that can be done one time, it’s something that has to be done continuously, because we need to change, and staff change- so it’s important to keep that up,” says Dunham.

In 2017, directors realized they were under-serving Indigenous youth, and created a dedicated position, a manager of Indigenous initiatives. The first thing that Dunham did upon taking the role, was establish an Indigenous advisory council to lead all of this work. 

“I take direction from [an] Indigenous advisory council. That’s made up of 12 people from across Canada with Métis, Inuit, and First Nation representation,” she says. 

Half of the advisory council are youth, and together they created an action plan ‘Finding Hope.’

Indigenous advisory council at Kids Help Phone informed action plan “Finding Hope”. Photo from Kids Help Phone website.

Mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, wellness is all closely linked together, says Dunham. 

“Connectedness to land, to culture, their access to food and shelter and clean water — all these things impact someone’s wellness, so it’s finding the whole. We look at supporting entire communities,” she says.

For Dunham, this holistic approach to wellness involves asking questions on how to reduce barriers and increase awareness to Kids Help Phone and other services. 

COVID-19 increases need

According to Kids Help Phone, demand for its service has sharply increased since the pandemic began, with a 350 per cent increase in text messages from young people who have reached out with fears around COVID-19.

Kids Help Phone had over 2,000 conversations with Indigenous youth in both December and January, that was a hundred per cent increase when comparing the same time period last year.

The website shows data organized by themes of calls, including anxiety, bullying, emotional abuse, sadness and depression.  

Kids Help Phone protects privacy of all calls, texts, and messages, and collects ages and types of calls to let youth know they are not alone.  Photo from Kids Help Phone website

Dunham says she knows the impact of stigma and the fact individual realities means people interpret their struggles differently. Something that is a hardship to one, might not be to another. She suspects the biggest issue is that youth fear that their problems aren’t big enough to justify reaching out. 

“The truth is, if it’s a big deal to them, it’s a big deal to us, and we’re here for them, no matter how small,” she says.

“It’s not always something like self harm or suicide,” says Dunham. 

Finding Hope

Brighter Days: is an Indigenous Wellness Program, developed by Indigenous experts to empower First Nations, Inuit and Métis youth with skills, tools and resources to support their well-being. The group sessions encourage help-seeking behaviours, and youth have an option to choose focus areas based on their community’s priorities.

These group sessions are not intended to serve as counselling, though they are led by Indigenous mental health professionals. 

Currently, Kids Help Phone is creating a network of liaisons in Indigenous communities. Volunteer champions, or ambassadors, will help Kids Help Phone understand the best way to build awareness of Kids Help Phone services and other wellness resources within that community. 

“They will provide feedback so we can ensure that resources in that community are in our database,” Dunham says. “So if young people from our community do reach out for support, we can connect them back to the community.  We already have over 250 volunteers for it.”

There are over 100 Indigenous crisis responders, but with a new mentorship program in the works for 2021 and 2022, the organization hopes that  number will increase. 

“We’ll be working with Indigenous post-secondary students to help them transition from school, into the workforce, and give practical counseling and crisis response experience,” says Dunham. 

“Tomorrow will be better — and how can we work together to make that happen?”