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Alaska teen's work combating suicide earns White House invite

Stephen Nowers illustration

Two years ago, when Tessa Baldwin began trying to combat the devastating suicide rate among Alaska Natives, the subject was all but taboo.

“No school, no student, no teacher wanted to talk about suicide,” said Baldwin, who comes from Kotzebue and is now a senior at Mt. Edgecumbe in Sitka. “Teachers said they really didn’t want their children learning about suicide because then they might do it. That really goes to show how much things have changed.”

Now, Baldwin fields requests for appearances from schools across Alaskas. And on Dec. 1 and 2, she will meet  President Obama and to talk about her work.

The presidential invitation came through the Native American Youth Challenge program, which asked young American Indian and Alaska Native leaders to submit their stories of leadership and service.

“I filled it out not knowing really what I was getting myself into,” Baldwin said.  When she made her first speech about suicide awareness years ago, she never it might one day lead to an invitation from the White House. “I didn’t think about my campaign going national at all, or even traveling around the state,” she said.

But Baldwin’s story is compelling. Plus, at 17, she has a distinct advantage. Baldwin isn’t another adult standing before students and lecturing. She hopes her work will  contributed to changing attitudes across the state about suicide. And she hopes it will lead to fewer suicides. She’s seen far too many.

At age 5, Baldwin witnessed her uncle take his life. Last year, her boyfriend did, too. In total, Baldwin has known six people close to her who’ve committed suicide. That’s a lot but not an uncommon amount in Native villages, where the number of deaths by suicide is well above the national average.