In-person, virtual support groups now available to Navajo veterans

Navajo veterans can now access in-person and virtual peer support groups thanks to a partnership between Televeda and the Navajo Nation Veterans Administration.

The support groups take the form of talking circles, deeply rooted in the traditional practices of Indigenous people. While not a clinical intervention, talking circles are evidence-based and an effective way to combat social isolation in a community where mental health is stigmatized, experts say. 

Televeda was founded as a platform to combat social isolation in vulnerable communities. After a contract with the Department of Health and Human Services to bring broadband to rural communities, the organization decided to design a resource for Indigenous communities. It won a VA grant in early 2023 to build out the solution.

The new in-person discussion groups will be offered at various locations throughout the Navajo Nation. Those interested in the virtual offering can register for free through Televeda’s Hero’s Story Project, aimed specifically at veteran suicide prevention. Each talking circle, whether in-person or online, is led by a trauma-informed facilitator trained on a safety protocol, in case a participant expresses thoughts of self harm or suicide.

The virtual talking circles take place on a web-based application built on two years of research, according to Televeda co-founder Mayank Mishra. Televeda consulted with Indigenous community leaders and healers, as well as narrative therapists, to ensure the experience is built in a culturally competent way.

For instance, when a Native American introduces themselves in such a discussion format, it is common practice to say their name, tribe and their parents’ clan, Mishra explained. Televeda built such a capability into its app with the option to fill these elements out under each attendee’s name. 

“They’re immediately forming relationships… it’s a small thing, but I think that helps establish kinship within a room,” Mishra told Fierce Healthcare. There is also a virtual token that attendees can pass around to speak, as is custom.

Televeda is also offering virtual talking circles for women and LGBTQ+ individuals. Each discussion is capped at 10 people, and multiple sessions can run concurrently. The company’s near-term goal is to track how much engagement each group is getting and what each community’s unique needs are.

“We really don’t want to be—the expression is parachute droppers—because historically, that has been the case with all nonprofits,” Mishra said. “We are very particular about not being the case.”

Native Americans have historically joined the military at higher rates than other racial or ethnic groups. Yet they also die by suicide at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group. Among both groups—Native Americans and veterans—mental health is stigmatized.

“Mental health is very rarely talked about. There is still a huge stigma,” Jordanna Saunders, a Navajo trauma therapist collaborating with Televeda to facilitate some of the support groups, told Fierce Healthcare. 

What’s more, resources on reservations like the Navajo Nation are slim. There are thousands of Navajos living in rural areas with no water and electricity, let alone healthcare providers, per Saunders. Her own small hometown on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico sees years-long wait lists to see a mental health specialist. 

“‘There’s nothing here, there’s nothing here,’” Saunders regularly hears in sessions. “Even if the services aren't there right now, there still is a huge need.” 

Talking circles are a way to tackle community engagement and prevention upstream while combating social isolation and fostering connection. “We strive for it, we thrive from it—it’s something that is fundamental to who we are as communities,” Saunders said.

Saunders has helped to lead several Televeda in-person talking circles to date. The response has been strong, with participants driving up to three hours to attend and help spread the word. The virtual groups have also served as a powerful resource, particularly for those that can’t travel, with attendees tuning in even from outside the state of Arizona, per Saunders.

Mishra acknowledged that connectivity and digital equity remain areas of concern for the rural Navajo population. Televeda is working with the state of Arizona to explore device-lending programs to help individuals access the digital offering. Part of why the virtual talking circle app is device-agnostic is to keep it as accessible as possible.  

“The whole job here is about building trust and doing it slowly, so we wanted to make sure in a low-tech environment we have something that’s inclusive,” Mishra said.

Saunders is hearing from participants that they have never before had a support group offering like this. “I see my role is to facilitate that sacred space for them,” she said.