Suicide was a big part of Jon Simeon's life as he was growing up in the Western Alaska village of Aniak, where a good friend took his own life on the day they were to go hunting.
Simeon is still hurting 24 years after Alfred Cutter killed himself, the 42-year-old state wildlife trooper said Monday. His remarks came as he and two other wildlife troopers departed on a snowmobile trek to visit villages and advocate for suicide prevention among Alaska Natives.
"He took away my friend for the rest of my life, my best friend," Simeon, who is Athabascan and Yup'ik, said of Cutter's suicide. "That's something I can never get back, something that can never be rebuilt."
Simeon and troopers Darrell Hildebrand and Thomas Akelkok are all Native. Hildebrand lost his father to suicide when he was 5, according to troopers spokeswoman Beth Ipsen, who is traveling with the trio on the 430-mile journey launched Monday from Manley Hot Springs. The effort is expected to include visits to a half dozen other communities, including Tanana and Galena, before concluding Wednesday in Unalakleet.
Along the way, the men will speak at schools and community centers, spreading the word that options are available.
"They have a very personal message that, 'Hey, life is definitely worth living for,' " Ipsen said.
Historically a taboo subject, suicide is increasingly being confronted head-on, said Kate Burkhart, director of the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council. The council says Alaska's suicide rate is twice the national average and that Alaska Natives continue to account for a disproportionate number.
"People seem to want to talk more about how suicide has affected them personally as well as their communities and to talk about how to help people when they are in crisis," Burkhart said. "I think this ongoing conversation in the last few years, especially in rural communities, has energized people."
Among other recent endeavors, Vernon Stickman walked and ran from his village of Tanana to Galena to promote healthy lifestyles and suicide prevention. Stickman, who arrived at his destination Friday, lost his 22-year-old son, Corey, to suicide in September 2010.
The Yukon-Kuskokwim community of Napaskiak launched a healing circle at about the same time in 2010 to deal with suicide attempts by local young people. One young woman returned to the village after she was sent out for therapy, saying the professional service was not helpful.
That's when residents in the Yup'ik community decided to create the informal circle. The idea is to first have someone close to the struggling resident approach them for a talk, then lead the person to a spiritual leader or teacher, then to an elder, said Earl Samuelson, a member of the tribal council. He said the outreach has been effective with some. Even so, a young man killed himself "out of the blue" in January.
"Suicide comes and goes. It could be a slow season. It could be a busy season," he said.
Samuelson, who flies troopers to villages, said at least a dozen people committed suicide two summers ago in his region.
Samuelson himself lost a 14-year-old brother to a gunshot years ago. He still doesn't know if his death was an accident or a suicide, a dilemma many others face in similar deaths.
"I've always wondered, you know, if it was or if it wasn't," he said.