Tessa Baldwin was 5 when she saw her uncle commit suicide. By the age of 10, she knew a half-dozen people who had taken their own lives. About a year ago, she added another name to the list: her boyfriend.
Baldwin, now 17 and a member of the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council, fought through tears to tell her story Saturday during a U.S. Senate field hearing on Alaska Native suicide at the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in downtown Anchorage.
"My generation has grown up around suicide," said Baldwin, who is from Kotzebue and now attends Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka. "The seed of suicide has already been planted. It is our second thought to all of our problems."
Baldwin and other Native youths -- along with federal and state mental health experts -- gave recorded testimony for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, with Sen. Lisa Murkowski presiding. The hearing was a way to have a local discussion about suicide, "an epidemic" in Alaska and traditionally a taboo topic, Murkowski said. The testimony would be taken back to policy makers in Washington, D.C., she said.
"If we don't share it, if we don't talk about it, we will never be able to deal with it," Murkowski told the room of more than 100 attendees.
The statistics on suicide, if not unfamiliar, are staggering, said Richard McKeon, lead public health adviser for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
A 2008 study showed suicide was the second leading cause of death for Alaska Native and American Indian people between the ages of 10 and 24, McKeon said. Another federal study published this year showed that Natives 15 to 24 died from suicide at a rate more than twice the national average, he said.
The causes are many and cannot be addressed in isolation from each other, said Diane Casto, manager of prevention and early intervention for the state Department of Health and Social Services.
"We know that trauma, loss of culture and adverse childhood experiences all contribute to high rates of substance use, mental illness, suicide and interpersonal violence," Casto said. Historical trauma is also a major factor, but one that is often overlooked, Casto said.
Evon Peter of Fairbanks, a former Neetsaii Gwich'in chief, spoke about the traumatic history of Westerners moving into Alaska. Research has shown that colonization contributes to high suicide rates among indigenous people around the world, Peter said.
Not unlike many generations before him, Peter suffered from hunger, abuse, racism and exposure to alcohol and substance abuse during his early life, he said. Despite a thorough education in traditional ways, Peter found himself falling into the same patterns, he said.
"I was lucky to survive my teenage years," Peter said. "I chose to heal and develop myself to be there for my family and my people."
Alaska Natives as a whole need to live a more disciplined life so they can depend on each other for help when they're feeling depressed or suicidal, Peter said. The government can help with that, he said.
"I would like to suggest that an equal if not greater scale of investment that was put into eradicating our cultures and assimilating Alaska Native peoples into Western ways be invested into healing, wellness and leadership development to help us recover."
Peter said suicide prevention doesn't necessarily mean just providing funding for mental health and suicide prevention programs. Infrastructure upgrades in villages for things like running water and electricity generation would go a long way toward improving lives in rural Alaska, Peter said.
"A quick example is when the United States invaded Iraq," Peter said. "We totally destroyed their infrastructure, utilities systems, buildings, and we invested millions of dollars to rebuild Iraq. We've never even come close to investing that just to do initial building in the villages. It just doesn't make sense."
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