Finding New Ways to Connect During Isolation

Jeff Ledolter
National American Indian & Alaska Native Addiction Technology Transfer Center

When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March 2020 and services began shutting down, many clinics were at a loss for what to do. Facing an unprecedented challenge, health providers had to make tough decisions with incomplete information on how they could best help their patients. They had to weigh the possible effects of exposing their patients to an unknown infectious disease against the behavioral health problems that they knew could cost their patients their lives. It’s been commonly said that addiction is the opposite of connection. How could a counselor advocate for their patients to socially distance when they knew it would put patients at greater risk of relapse and overdose?

Health providers were not alone in facing this decision. Almost every organization, including our three American Indian and Alaska Native technology transfer centers, was forced to adapt to the new normal of isolation and severing of connections. We’ve long been an advocate of hosting in-person training sessions and events. The relationships and trust that we have with our network of providers are based on face-to-face interactions. It not only embodies the harm reduction approach of meeting people where they are but acknowledges their tribal connections with their lands and shows that we are committed to helping improve their communities.

After some consideration, each of our centers began a series of listening sessions. Every week, we would invite providers to our Prevention, Mental Health, and Addiction TTC listening sessions to hear what was happening in their communities and allow them to connect to a world they were no longer permitted to attend. Originally, these sessions were an opportunity for grantees to vent their frustration and compare their situations with others. Over time, as people got used to the new format and began seeing familiar faces on these calls, they began opening up and sharing more about their individual and community challenges. They began comparing strategies that they’d found useful when faced with an unprecedented challenge and began accepting help from each other. Connecting these virtual neighbors allowed them to improve their practices by comparing the relative effectiveness of different treatment and prevention approaches in native communities.

Telecommunication events are still imperfect and may never match up to the connection found in face-to-face interactions. I’m sure that most professionals are too familiar with the audio/video problems and awkward delay problems that come with teleconferencing. Still, keeping that connection alive during these stressful times is more important than ever.

Unfortunately, 8 months since it was declared, the pandemic is still not over. Even worse, providers are already beginning to see the wave of mental health and substance use disorders that follow a period of stress, uncertainty, and isolation. To date, our centers have hosted over 100 of these listening sessions and we plan to continue them for as long as they are useful, perhaps even once we’re able to meet face-to-face again. Even through this virtual meeting space, we’ve seen once again the kind of resilience that Native communities display when relying on cooperation, empathy, and trust.

For an overview our listening sessions, please visit our webpage here:

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