Virtual Talking Circles to Prevent Suicide: Innovative App Seeks to Reach Native American Vets at Risk

Navajo Code Talker Memorial at Window Rock, Arizona
A photo of the Navajo Code Talker Memorial at Window Rock, Arizona, taken Aug. 13, 2022. During the battle of Iwo Jima, six Navajo Code Talker Marines successfully transmitted more than 800 messages without error. According to Major Howard Connor, the 5th Marine Division signal officer during the battle, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.” (Leslie Alcaraz/U.S. Marine Corps)

An app designed to provide Native American veterans with mental health care in a culturally tailored way that received a funding boost from the Department of Veterans Affairs is set to formally launch after an event this weekend with the Navajo Nation.

Starting Memorial Day on Monday, interested veterans will be able to register for virtual talking circles -- discussion ceremonies deeply rooted in indigenous North American culture -- through the Hero's Story web-based app developed by a company called Televeda, which won a VA grant competition last year that sought innovative ideas for veterans suicide prevention.

"Topics like historical trauma, etc., are felt at a community level and so the healing also happens together through stories, fire, food," Televeda co-founder Mayank Mishra told in a recent interview. "Even though it's a small population in one sense, it's the ones who are the most underserved and have a lot of complex issues that we're hoping to just move the needle in the right direction."

Read Next: Younger Troops Got More Vasectomies After Supreme Court Struck Down Abortion Rights, Researchers Say

Native Americans historically have joined the military at one of the highest rates of any ethnic group in the U.S., but indigenous veterans also have one of the highest suicide rates.

In 2021, the suicide rate for Native American veterans was 46.3 per 100,000, the highest of any ethnic or racial group, according to the VA's most recent suicide report. By comparison, the next highest group was white veterans at 36.3 per 100,000.

    Native Americans veterans also experienced a 51.8% jump in suicides in 2021 compared to 2020, one of the biggest year-over-year increases, according to the report.

    The VA data tracks with trends in the general U.S. population, where Native American civilians also experience higher suicide rates than other ethnic groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    "Creating culturally sensitive and responsive interventions to meet each population's needs will be required to address what 2021 revealed to us," the VA report said, citing the Native American suicide rate among other data points.

    That demand for a culturally sensitive approach is what Televeda is hoping to fill. The company was founded in 2018 to provide online tools for community groups to help organize virtual and hybrid events in a bid to reduce loneliness and social isolation.

    In 2022, the company entered the VA's Mission Daybreak competition, a "grand challenge" aimed at finding new approaches to suicide prevention. Televeda's pitch for the competition: an app for virtual mental health support groups presented in a format resembling traditional Native American talking circles and storytelling sessions.

    VA officials were impressed. The company was one of two first-place prize winners the department announced it was awarding $3 million to last year.

    While the money was helpful, Mishra said VA support for the project has proven more valuable in helping build bridges between the department and a population that is often distrustful of the federal government.

    "The funding has definitely helped establish the right types of teams and partnerships, whether it was developing the storytelling narrative, but also then allowing us to have the right type of partnerships with veterans service organizations, tribal organizations, state agencies as well," he said. "We've been very grateful for the support that we're getting in a subject area which is very also taboo in indigenous culture, talking about death, suicide, mental health."

    Ahead of the formal launch, Televeda has been running test virtual talking circles. Veterans who have participated in those sessions have come from all eras of service and have shared positive feedback, said Jordanna Saunders, a Navajo trauma therapist who has been consulting with Televeda and leading some of the talking circles since February.

    "Many of them have told me that they feel supported, motivated, excited, and in one case, the person shared it gave them a reason to get out of bed in the morning -- knowing that they had the support group later that week," Saunders wrote in an email to "It gives them something to look forward to."

    While Saunders has some concerns the virtual model may leave behind veterans who live in rural areas with little-to-no internet -- a major issue on Native American tribal land -- she said she is hopeful Televeda's concept will help improve indigenous veterans' well-being.

    "I believe that social cohesion is a fundamental need and strength of the Navajo people and all people, especially veterans," said Saunders, whose father was an Army paratrooper. "Veterans in many areas, especially those homebound or in rural areas, lack access to places and spaces where they can openly talk to other veterans about their experiences both during and immediately after military service.

    "Connection is the cure for many of life's ailments," she added. "People need to know they are not alone and that they have access to a community of support."

    Because of the internet infrastructure issues, Televeda is also partnering with Navajo Nation to host in-person talking circles, Mishra said.

    The in-person sessions have also been running tests since January, but will be formally announced with an event Saturday in the Navajo Nation's capital of Window Rock, Arizona. The in-person groups will be available at community centers across the Navajo Nation, Mishra said.

    Saturday's event, which has been dubbed "Rededication Day," will also feature the unveiling of a veterans community garden that Televeda helped revitalize. The garden is in the shape of a traditional medicine wheel and includes space for a talking circle in the middle, with the goal being to provide another way for Navajo veterans to connect with one another.

    "What we're hoping is just showing that traditional healing modalities are seeing good engagement and adoption," Mishra said of how Televeda will measure whether its programs are successful. "Our hope is just that upstream approach that we're able to just get more communities and veterans connected and get them to feel less lonely."

    Veterans and service members experiencing a mental health emergency can call the Veteran Crisis Line, 988 and press 1. Help also is available by text, 838255, and via chat at

    Related: These Projects Won $3 Million from the VA for Suicide Prevention

    Story Continues