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In Northwest Arctic, a powerful tool in combating suicide: Training youths to help each other

Last month, the University of Alaska Fairbanks announced a $4.25 million initiative to tackle youth suicide in Alaska Native communities, with a focus on resilience and solutions.

But one program in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District has focused on this type of community-based prevention since its start in 2008, and it now has been showing results.

Promoting peer-to-peer mentoring, the school district's Youth Leaders Program engages students and their communities, challenging them to come up with solutions to bullying, isolation and suicidal tendencies.

In the years since the program's start, the school district has seen a dramatic drop in student suicides. According to Michelle Woods, the program coordinator until she retired two years ago, nine students died by suicide in 2007. By 2009, it was five.

The drop in suicides "is really great news," Jim Allen, a professor at the University of Minnesota and one of the leaders of UAF's new initiative, said in a phone interview while he was traveling to Fairbanks. "This is the type of effort that typically doesn't get reported about in newspapers and scientific literature — what works. We really want to grow this effort in describing examples like this one, of a community really doing something right."

Jones, who ran the Youth Leaders Program from 2015 to this year, was careful in a phone interview to not attribute all the success to the initiative. Suicide is a notoriously tricky thing to study and is usually a culmination of many social and personal factors, Jones said.

The premise of the Youth Leaders Program is simple: tap a number of student leaders in each school and give them the training to help their peers during times of distress. Anyone can be a Youth Leader — there are currently over 120 in the school district, which has around 2,000 students in grades kindergarten through 12th. Over 90 percent of the district's students are Alaska Native, spread out among 11 villages in Northwest Alaska that range in population between 150 and 3,200.

Students also nominate two of their peers who they think are approachable if students have an issue at school or home. These students are offered positions as captains, who help teach Youth Leaders at their schools. Both captains and Youth Leaders are trained in the TALK suicide prevention program — short for "Tell Somebody," "Ask," "Listen and Reflect" and "Keep Them Safe."

Youth Leaders are also involved in two trainings, one at the end of summer and one in the winter that focuses on traditional Inupiaq cultural activities. Captains participate in a third spring training before summer vacation.

The Youth Leaders Program receives the bulk of its $2 million from Teck Resources Limited, the mining company that operates the Red Dog Mine near Kotzebue. Other funding comes from school grants for after-school programs.

Alaska has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, second after Wyoming in 2015, the most recent year available for those statistics. In 2015, the age-adjusted Alaska suicide mortality rate was 27.1 deaths per 100,000 people, more than double the U.S. average of 13.3 deaths per 100,000 people.

Within Alaska Native populations, that number ballooned to 50.4 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015. It is the leading cause of death for male Alaska Native teens and young men.

Kotzebue's Youth Leaders Program is one of many in the region focused on suicide prevention.

But researchers see a need for more multi-year studies on those strategies. The new five-year federal grant awarded to UAF will help connect tribal leaders, Native organizations and other stakeholders with researchers to study initiatives in Alaska Native communities to reduce suicide, creating a hub to share information.

Allen said that the Youth Leaders Program sounds like it would be of interest to stakeholders. The lead researchers, who include Allen, Lisa Wexler from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Stacy Rasmus from UAF, will meet this week to create a way to bring the participating groups together.

Last November, Wexler and another team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, McGill University and the Northwest Arctic Borough School District released a preliminary evaluation of the Youth Leaders Program.

Looking at 11 schools during the 2013-2014 school year, researchers found that school attendance for Youth Leaders in grades nine through 11 increased an average nine days, and the GPA of Youth Leaders in grades eight through 10 increased from 3.01 to 3.14. Youth Leaders also felt a sense of belonging, which can help with depression and loneliness during vulnerable periods.

Youth Leaders and adult advisers at schools also "expressed confidence that the program prevents suicide," according to the report.

Wexler — a venerable figure in Alaska Native suicide research and a lead researcher in the UAF effort — is set to release a new study in the upcoming months that she said shows a drop in youth suicide rates in the Northwest Arctic in the past five years. She credits the Maniilaq Association in Northwest Alaska for helping with community-based programs that focus on self-determination.

While this is uplifting, Wexler said it would be more valuable to have data looking at trends in youth suicide on a broader level — 20 years, rather than five.

Pat Sidmore, acting executive director of the Alaska Mental Health Board, also says that research is important when it comes to suicide interventions. But he says that suicide is a difficult thing to study in Alaska because of the small number of Alaskans who commit suicide each year (around 150 to 200 people).

"It would be hard to draw conclusions based on those numbers, at least based on an epidemiological standpoint," he said in an interview.

One solution would be to study each case to determine the individual factors that contributed to each suicide. But that would be very costly and take a significant amount of time.

The new UAF effort will focus on community resilience and cultural programs in 65 Western Alaska communities. Wexler says that these programs are important for Alaska Native youths who can sometimes feel like they are straddling two worlds: Western society and a more traditional, subsistence way of life, which may be dwindling due to outside influences.

In the past two years, the Youth Leaders Program has ratcheted up its cultural activities, bringing in elders to teach students traditional hunting and fishing techniques.

This type of outreach can also help older people in the villages, Wexler says, rebuilding some of their trust in institutions that are negatively associated with western culture.

Moving forward, Jones would like to broaden the Youth Leaders Program to reach home-schooled students, graduates and college students — demographic groups that still have multiple suicides each year, on average, in Northwest Alaska.

He would also like to expand the program to have all students, not just the Youth Leaders, teaching the program and taking ownership of their school and actions.

"That's the key element," Jones said. "And we want to make sure it's more prolific."

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that three students died from suicide in the second year of the program. According to statistics from the retired program coordinator, five students killed themselves in 2009. Also, the original version incorrectly said the program has cost $1 million. The correct amount is $2 million.

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