Talking Stick connects First Nations people with trained peer advocates.

A Saskatchewan-based mental health app is aiming to help First Nations people feel heard.

Talking Stick was developed by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations alongside Canadian tech health company TryCycle Data Systems. It is a free and anonymous text-only chat platform that allows First Nations people to connect with a trained peer advocate in Saskatchewan.

The advocates are First Nations people who have been trained to listen with compassion, respect and humility. They are not crisis counsellors or health-care professionals.

Nathan Chamakese, the northwest regional manager for the app, said the platform is meant to be a mental-health support built around the concept, “for First Nations by First Nations.”

“In regards to mental health we tried to tie in the cultural components to it. We tried to tie in any kind of respect to traditions and teachings,” Chamakese told CBC Radio’s The Afternoon Edition host Garth Marterie.

“The name itself, we’re referring to that sharing circle and giving that opportunity to somebody who’s actually using the app as a talking stick. We’re basically putting the spotlight on them to share whatever it is that they feel. ”

Chamakese said the peer advocates are there to provide supportive listening — which means providing positive reaffirmation and reassurances that things are going to be OK — not giving advice.

The app launched in June. It has had about 10,000 downloads and more than 25,000 interactions, according to TryCycle Data Systems.

He added that this is an innovative way for First Nations people to receive support.

“Especially in this day and age, it’s hard to reach our young people coming from our First Nations perspective,’ Chamakese said.

“A lot of times we kind of reference back to our elders’ teachings and ceremony and culture, and I find with how impactful technology is on young people [the Talking Stick] gives them a broader range of connection.”

App is a culturally safe option: Indigenous health expert

The chat platform is available in 11 languages, nine of which are Indigenous.

Malcolm King is a member of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and is a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan. His work focuses on improving wellness and achieving health equity for First Nations People, Métis and Inuit in Canada.

He said having Indigenous languages involved in mental health support can help some First Nations people receive better care.

“There are understandings of health that are specific to the Indigenous language that people speak,” King said.

“For many people who are fluent in their own language as well as English, I think the preference — because of the cultural nature of languages — would be to have the service in the language they are more comfortable in.”

King said the app is a great option for First Nations people seeking support.

“Having a connection that is based on cultural understanding and culturally appropriate connection will inherently lead to better results,” King said. “Presumably the trained listener will have a better perspective from a First Nations point of view on the issues in mental health.”

Chamakese is currently travelling to schools around the province to promote the app among youth.

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