How does one build hope? TryCycle Data Systems would argue that a fundamental part of the answer is in building connections – facilitating meaningful connections with real people in real-time.

Nowhere has hope been more sought after than in Canada’s Indigenous communities. It is no secret that these often isolated and under-served populations have consistently been pushed to society’s margins. The social determinants of health play a dominant role in influencing health outcomes, often restricting access to critical services. These are exacerbated by historical inequities that have led to intergenerational trauma and the related consequences – substance use and mental health disorders, and a pervasive lack of hope.

In February 2022, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan approached TryCycle Data Systems to leverage its technology and build an application to facilitate grassroots connections. The Government of Canada, through Indigenous Services Canada listened, recognized the opportunity to work with its partners, and answered the call, investing in a community-based, culturally safe initiative that would have an immediate impact.

Out of this commitment, Talking Stick was conceived – a First Nations-to-First Nations digital chat platform. Every chat is entirely anonymous, which provides the foundation for safe, judgement-free conversations to fill gaps that have persistently sustained the feelings of isolation and hopelessness among Indigenous peoples.

“Talking Stick is not just an app; it’s a campaign,” explains John MacBeth, Founder and CEO of TryCycle. “It’s about human beings; how we identify and look after people at risk.”

Talking Stick is providing options to people who are seeking support, in an environment where there has been a seemingly insurmountable chasm between need and help. Connection is key. The solution provides a secure connection between a Guest and a trained Peer Advocate, using a completely anonymous chat platform. It is free, accessible, and provides a destination that was never there before.

The program aims to hire 200 Indigenous Peer Advocates, with 80 Peers already mobilized across the province. The Peers themselves are screened, trained, and supported by a team of Regional Managers who provide coaching and guidance to the group of cultural resources. The main role of the Talking Stick Peer Advocates is to listen without judgement, creating a safe environment for anonymous Guests to share feelings ranging from loneliness to anxiety, emotions related to home life, school, relationships, or struggles with mental health.

James Smith Cree Nation is one of the many communities that has adopted Talking Stick. A small community which, on September 4, 2022, was devastated by one of the worst mass killings in Canadian history. The horrific events left ten people dead, while eighteen more suffered physical injuries. The community and surrounding areas continue to deal with unimaginable grief and loss that will take generations to heal.

Formal systems are often paralyzed in circumstances like this, where the appropriate response is not clear.

Investments are made in perceived solutions, satisfying the expectation that “something has to be done.” Unfortunately, once the acute phase of these events has passed, the tendency is to return to “business as usual.”

Nothing is left behind to support the ongoing emotions and grief. That is, until now. Talking Stick Peer Advocates were ready, and still are today ensuring that someone is available to listen and support their healing journey.

“Talking Stick is a means of communication, and to some, it may be their only lifeline. People use this as a safe place to unload their feelings and emotions, without judgement,” said Charlene Gardiner, TryCycle’s provincial director for Saskatchewan.

One such example occurred in June 2022, when a Talking Stick Peer Advocate maintained a text-based chat for over four hours, listening to and comforting a Guest who was contemplating suicide. This event provided the Guest the space they needed to process their feelings and allowed the Peer Advocate to offer phone numbers to professional health resources. After this chat, the Guest connected with the same Peer Advocate, to let them know they were okay. Mostly, this person wanted to say thank you for listening.

The challenges being faced by Canada’s Indigenous peoples are longstanding, and consequently they are complex. There are layers of trauma that have transcended generations and will continue to fester until hope is established in a sustained and consistent way. Further, the importance of Indigenous ownership of and participation in solutions like the Talking Stick app, cannot be understated.

TryCycle is proud and honoured to be a trusted partner in the campaign to bring hope and increase cultural connections between real people, offering real support, to real problems.

This article appeared in Canadian Healthcare Technology Magazine. The original post is available here.