Klamath Tribes Behavioral Health Department strives to provide mental health services for tribal members

In 2021, 22.8 percent of U.S. adults experienced a form of mental illness, equivalent to over 50 million Americans. According to Mental Health America, 46 percent of Americans will meet the criteria for a diagnosable mental health condition sometime in their life, and 93.5 percent of individuals with a substance use disorder are not receiving any form of treatment. Every American community is affected daily by this pervasive mental health crisis, and The Klamath Tribes is no exception. Susan Lawlor, Director of Behavioral Health for The Klamath Tribes, coordinates the various programs provided by the Behavioral Health Department.

Lawlor is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and she previously worked for Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe of Washington State as a behavioral health manager. “I really like working in tribal health,” she said. “One of the reasons is we have lots of resources always available to us. Prior to that, I worked in a lot of county programs where we had good ideas for programs but really had a hard time securing funds for the things that we wanted to do. So, one really refreshing thing about tribal health is that we have – between grant monies and other funds – we have money to do some really great programs for people.”

Under the Klamath Tribes Health & Family Services umbrella, Lawlor manages six departments or programs and 35 staff members. Although she acknowledged that keeping the programs adequately staffed can be a challenge, she expressed optimism about their future.

Lawlor touched upon one program provided, Recovery Support Reentry, run by Devery Saluskin, which supports incarcerated tribal members. The goal of the program is to keep incarcerated tribal members connected to their culture by holding tribal events, such as powwows and purification ceremonies, more commonly known as sweats.

“We also really want to focus on recovery,” said Lawlor, elaborating on the reentry program. “We got approval this last year, 2023, for an incentive program that we could run under one of our grants. So, we have a peer support person. I think this has kind of taken over, but the person will meet with the peer support or the case manager and develop some goals. We have worksheets that they can fill out whether their goals are employment or education or working to reconcile or reunite with their families – anything that’s a positive thing. That can include even physical health, like getting to the doctor or dentist.

“They kind of set their goals,” she said. “Then, we provide them with a worksheet, and for every five activities that they do, we enter them into a drawing. And so that’s how the incentive program works. We’ve had really good participation and interest in that. We purchase things like warm gloves, sleeping bags, and jackets – things that people really want to work toward. So, we’re able to offer them incentives for developing a plan for reentry, and doing activities every week, to help them move along.”

As of this writing, Behavioral Health is seeking to hire a reentry case manager for the Recovery Support and Reentry program. The successful applicant, Lawlor said, will be tasked with managing the transitions for people coming out of prison or jail, supporting them with housing and other needs that they might have.

Lawlor added that the Tribes already have three case managers who support mental health and five substance use disorder, or SUD, program counselors, as well as four part-time and full-time mental health counselors. In an effort to expand services to tribal members, the Tribes recently added two telehealth providers. “They’re located outside of the area,” Lawlor said, “but they are licensed in Oregon to see Oregon clients. And that program has gone really well. We weren’t sure in the beginning how that would be received, but their schedules are very booked up. I think part of it is just a convenience for people of being able to connect with providers from their home – if they have a quiet private space at work, they can connect with their counselor. A typical case often involves some trauma that people want to work through.”

Tribal members facing a crisis can call the Youth & Family Guidance Center, said Lawlor. Y&FGC has a behavioral health consultant, similar to an urgent care walk-in clinician. If an individual is in the middle of a crisis but doesn’t want to come in and do an entire assessment – a typical prerequisite to getting into regular counseling services – they can see a behavioral health consultant who will help them stabilize and manage the crisis, develop a plan for whether they want to do ongoing counseling, or whether they want some support during the crisis. After hours, clients are reminded that they can access the 988 phone number for mental health crises and support.

A slew of programs exists under Lawlor’s purview, and she touched on the funding for some of these programs while heaping praise on Behavioral Health’s prevention team, previously run by current Behavioral Health Manager Mandy Roberson. “Our prevention, recovery-reentry, and street outreach programs, those are pretty much 100 percent supported by grants,” said Lawlor. “So, when we get various grants from the state, we work to develop programs to meet the criteria for the grants and then offer that. Our prevention team is amazing. They do so many events and reach so many populations. They work with the elders, they work with the youth, they work with the veterans, and they do a lot of work in the schools. They’re amazing. They just do so much.”

Lawlor cited activities their programs offered to tribal members to keep them connected, like sweat lodges, boating trips, rafting trips, and trips to significant cultural sites. “Our big motto is that ‘Culture is prevention,’ she said. “And that’s really true, and it also is good recovery support when we can get people connected to their culture and their tribal activities. It really helps them along with prevention and recovery.”

Another mental health-related crisis affecting American communities across all demographics is the opioid epidemic. Decades ago, Purdue Pharma began aggressively marketing OxyContin, a powerful prescription painkiller, which has become synonymous with kickstarting the current nationwide epidemic. Pharmaceutical representatives persuaded doctors to prescribe the drug with little concern for patients developing potentially fatal addictions. After a series of lawsuits and fines, Purdue filed for bankruptcy in 2019. The following year, it was reported that Purdue had reached a settlement potentially worth $8.3 billion.

“We’re going to be getting a lot of money from the opioid settlements,” said Lawlor. “So, I think one of our biggest challenges right now is to be able to create something meaningful from the fund – something that really will make a difference in the opioid crisis – rather than just kind of spending money, to really figure out some ways to make an impact with those dollars. So, we’re working on trying to create some project budgets, some ideas, and plans with the management team of what we would really like to do with that.”

While plans for programs are continually laid out, Lawlor praised her current team. “I have to say that I have a very, very good group of managers for each one of those departments.”

If you or a loved one is facing a mental or substance abuse crisis, the Klamath Tribal Health Youth & Family Guidance Center can be reached at 541-884-1841. Its hours of operation are Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Closed on federal holidays and tribally observed days.