Alaska has the third-highest suicide rate in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Suicide can often be one of the most difficult topics to discuss, given a host of complex social, legal and religious norms.
M. Lynn Crane is the executive director of Unalaskans Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence, a local crisis intervention, safe center and advocacy organization. The nonprofit hosted its annual Make a Difference dinner for suicide prevention and awareness on Sept. 29, where Crane led a table designed to facilitate difficult conversations.
“We write out prompts, we talk about it,” said Crane. “We ask people to draw one and read it, and then tell us how they would help a friend who was dealing with that situation.”
Eight community partner groups worked with the organization to host different activities. There was yoga, painting and games, as well as educational tables with free books and other resources.
Many Unalaskans look forward to the annual event, which was paused during the pandemic. Longtime resident Suzi Golodoff said the dinner is one of her favorite events of the year. Like most of the attendees, she traveled from table to table, checking out the different groups.
A table hosted by Russel Laforteza and Yhvana Rupediez offered educational resources about LGBTQ life. Laforteza and Rupediez said the backing of the community can alleviate the stigmas of being LGBTQ, especially in a small town.
“It is very important to host the table to serve as a reminder that the LGBT community is just as ‘normal’ as the rest of us,” Laforteza said. “No one should be marginalized because of their sexuality or gender identity.”
In general, Laforteza and Rupediez agreed that Unalaska is a welcoming place.
“We know mostly everyone around here, so we feel safe,” said Rupediez.
“I know everyone, and vice versa,” added Laforteza.
Another table focused on Indigenous knowledge and tools for healing. Anfesia Tutiakoff is the culture director for the Qawalangin Tribe. To her, engaging in art is a way to connect with her culture.
“The Unangax̂ and the Aleut people, we’ve been so impacted by our history, and so we really have to work through all of that and reclaim who we are, traditionally and historically,” said Tutiakoff. “We need to bring back and revive our cultural traditions. If we don’t have that, we feel lost.”
Tutiakoff reflected on the importance of traditional healing practices while decorating stones from Unalaska beaches with Unangax̂ traditional markings.
“When we talk about traditional healing, we really want to embrace our culture,” she said. “We need to know who we are internally, through our ancestors — and not only share our own culture and history, but learn about others.”
It’s not only Alaska Native culture that uses art to heal. Local artist Sharon O’Malley led a painting station where visitors used markers and watercolor paint to create colorful, abstract patterns on small sheets of paper.
“You can be five years old or 85 years old, and still get the same enjoyment out of it,” said O’Malley. “I think art is a great way to deal with stress.”
Crane said the dinner is a fun event about a serious topic. She stressed the importance of community youth seeing leaders at events like the Make a Difference dinner. In all, about 130 turned out for the event.
If you or someone you know is in crisis or thinking about suicide, help is available. Call or text the Suicide Crisis Lifeline at 988, available 24/7.