A proposal that would require Alaska teachers and school staff to undergo training for suicide awareness and prevention cleared the House Finance Committee on Thursday.
Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, is the sponsor of SB137. She said the goal of the measure is to help more people spot warning signs that may exist. Teachers, counselors and school staff in some cases know children better than anyone and are in a unique position to spot warning signs.
"Alaska has by far the highest rate of suicide per capita in the country," Davis told the committee. "Training teachers in recognizing signs of at-risk youth and learning how to intervene has proved very helpful in reducing teen suicide in many other states."
Behind the bill is a Tennessee-based group called The Jason Foundation, whose founder, Clark Flatt, spoke to the committee by phone from suburban Nashville in favor of the bill.
Flatt said his 16-year-old son, Jason, committed suicide in 1997 much to the surprise of family and friends. He was shocked when he realized the frequency of teenage suicides and the lack of organizations promoting awareness and education, so he set out to fill the void.
Various efforts have come from the foundation, and in 2007 the Tennessee General Assembly approved a bill similar to the one currently being considered in Alaska and already in effect in eight states.
"This is the single most effective way to improve awareness," Flatt said. "It's a great step that can have an impact right away, but it's important to remember this is a lifeboat. You have to look at the other problems there."
Katya Wassillie sat alongside Davis during the hearing to share her thoughts on the bill. The University of Alaska Fairbanks student is working for Davis as an intern, but her roots are in western Alaska, and she has seen the Lower Yukon's struggle with suicide up close.
She said after the hearing she lost a cousin and several high school friends to suicide.
Wassillie said the bill is a step in the right direction, but she agrees that other problems should be part of the conversation.
"So many things stem from alcohol abuse," Wassillie said after the hearing. "People focus so much on alcohol that they neglect their family and their friends, (and) a lot of times, child neglect and abuse is what causes people to commit suicide. They don't see their self-worth."
Wassillie, Inupiaq by heritage and raised around Yupik culture, said another key problem tied to suicide is loss of culture. She said a lot of kids can't even speak to their grandparents now because they share no common language.
"It's like you're being pulled in two different directions," she said. "There's an expectation for youth to retain a lot of cultural knowledge, but at the same time there's this expectation to go off to college. There's something missing when you lose your culture."
A range of groups, including education and government leaders, have spoken in support of the bill.
SB137 cleared the Senate unanimously in February. It now goes to the House Rules Committee before any floor vote.