It takes a village to teach hope in Scammon Bay

Megan Edge

When Kerry Nordstrom, the only counselor at Scammon Bay School, says the 210 students and 17 teachers walking through the building's doors have "been clean" for three years, she doesn't mean it the way people usually do. The tiny school in a village on the banks of the Kun River, just a mile from the Bering Sea in Western Alaska, hasn't lost a student to suicide in three years. It's a sign of progress, especially considering that four years ago, three students took their own lives.

Depending on who you ask, the reasons for a decrease in student deaths vary. Nordstrom, who traveled to Alaska in 2012 from Oregon and was assigned to work in Scammon Bay, credits the declining trend to a handful of factors that allows everyone to participate in suicide prevention -- a good counselor, teaching resources, a dedicated village public safety officer and a peer group program called Natural Helpers, in which students are trained to looks for signs of depression.

The school's assistant principal, Harley Sundown, who was born and raised in the community only accessible to the outside world by boat or airplane, said it's taken a lot of "spiritual guidance" to pull them out of a hole that was dug roughly two decades ago.

Opening up discussion about suicide

In 2010, state data says, Alaska Native males between the ages of 15 and 24 were the highest-risk demographic in the nation for suicide. A 2013 report said suicide is the leading cause of death for people in that age-range in the state. As of November 2013, suicide rates in Alaska were twice the national average.

Laraine Adams, director of special services for the Lower Yukon School District, has been with the district since 2011 and was hesitant to talk about the specifics behind past suicides. There is community nervousness when it comes to discussing the taboo topic and a fear of flooding the communities with old, tragic feelings once again.

"We've had suicides one after another previously, and I hope we don't have to name names," said Sundown, who has lost a child himself to suicide. "It (brings) things back that I don't want to resurface in the community, and those are things that have left our systems."

Sundown said that final, tragic decision has become a way out for many youth. He reflected on a statement an elder told him "a long time ago."

"When they've opened the door or paved the trail, it allows other people to follow," he said. "Doing something to yourself is a very difficult decision, and when you do, that opens the floodgate that lets many more in."

Sundown compared the open discussion of the topic to opening a hospital. When you build it, he said, sick people will come.

Everyone seems to have their own ideas as to why suicide has held such a prominent presence in rural Alaska. Factors include alcohol and drug abuse, parenting and cultural differences.

"Kids out here are turning more to the western way of life and forgetting their traditional hunter-gatherer type of stuff, and they are at a crossroads right now," said Richard Charlie, head of maintenance at Scammon Bay School. "It's a really big identity crisis."

Charlie, a longtime resident of the region, is a father raising seven children between the ages of 13 and 22. He said he tries to raise his own kids a little bit differently from "most people," by teaching values, creating expectations and making rules. But even if the next child buried isn't your own, he said, everyone feels it.

"Suicide has affected me greatly," said Charlie, 42. "I came to work one day and found my nephew hanging from the playground. You never expect to go to work and find a body."

He said his nephew, who was in his mid-teens at the time of his death, took his own life without any explanation.

He tries to talk to his children about how to handle crisis situations; the key is being up front and honest, he said. But the dead cast shadows over the streets that leave him with an eerie feeling.

Teaching hope

There is one common thread that counselors, parents, principals and administrators all see in depressed youths: hopelessness.

Sundown said people have dwelled on the idea of suicide for so long that it has been romanticized, and certain tools, like coping skills, aren't regularly taught to youth.

As a district, Adams said they've put a huge emphasis on positive acknowledgment by celebrating little victories and focusing on student wellness, which she said is more than just the physical nourishment of a child, but taking care of the emotional side, too.

Several programs in the region aim to teach students, parents and community members what the signs of depression are and what resources are available during dark times, as well as about adolescent brain development.

That Natural Helpers program, which is district-wide, has "really helped" Scammon Bay, said Nordstrom. She said they have an entire system worked out that seems to be working and is making process in stopping the deadly cycle. The high school-aged children are taught how to help their peers, what signs to look for, what questions to ask and what community resources are available. Once they've spotted a student in need they know to tell an adult.

Most of the issues are problems typical of school-aged children, like relationship hurdles and bullying. So when a high school student from the Natural Helpers program sees a student "run into the bathroom crying," Nordstrom said, they are quick to help.

Nordstrom remembers a student who posted online that he was going to kill himself. She said students from the Natural Helpers program notified her almost immediately. She brought the young man in, they talked, "and everything was okay."

Sundown, although happy with the various programs, said in his own opinion, success has come from prayer and blessings.

"I really believe in divine intervention," said Sundown. "In our lowest times that is when we ask for help from God, and I think he answered our prayers, and I think he helped put away the spirit of suicide."

Regardless of who or what is really to credit for the three-year streak, everyone was in agreement they are happy about the change.

"When resources can gather and wrap around a problem, whatever it may be, we see progress," said Adams. "And progress is what we are seeing across the district."

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