Alaska News

New anti-suicide message by Iditarod musher urges, 'never give up'

BETHEL -- A short video that draws on the growing fame of a local musher to push a different sort of anti-suicide message is taking off on social media, with thousands of Facebook views.

"Imagine if one morning the unthinkable happened," Pete Kaiser, a part-Yup'ik Bethel-born musher, says in the new public service announcement as images of his dogs' friendly faces fill the screen. "What if my team began to disappear, one by one. Gone. No trace, just gone, leaving me with nothing, with no hope."

"This is suicide," Kaiser says on the video, "and suicide is never the answer."

He urges viewers never to give up, "even when you think you're all alone in this world or you think you can't take it anymore, you keep going."

The video is the latest effort of Drew's Foundation, a Bethel-based organization born out of one family's grief over the suicide of a loved one, a way to fight a devastating social ill.

Alaska's rate of suicide is the worst, or some years, nearly the worst, in the nation.

The rate in 2013 was 23.4 for every 100,000 Alaskans, slightly higher than the year before, a new report by the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council says. That's almost double the nation's rate, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Among young Alaska Native males, the rate was much worse, at 168 suicides per 100,000 young men between the ages of 15 and 24.

Kaiser was a Bethel high school friend and wrestling team mate of Drew O'Brien, a former state champion wrestler. Drew was half Yup'ik. He killed himself when he was 23.

Kaiser said he wanted to do whatever he could to help the family put a spotlight on the problem -- and the help that's within reach. Drew's Foundation is one of his mushing sponsors.

"Call someone," Kaiser says in the video, which ends with the Alaska Careline number, 1-877-266-4357, flashing on the screen.

The video was launched Wednesday, a week and a half after Kaiser's victory in the Kuskokwim 300 sled dog race, the first win by a Yukon-Kuskokwim musher in almost three decades.

By Saturday morning it had more than 5,200 Facebook views and 135 shares. The Drew's Foundation post about it reached more than 26,000 viewers in two days.

Drew's family started the foundation after he killed himself on Jan. 1, 2011. He was living in Anchorage and in some ways was at the top of his game. He was about to graduate from a two-year construction apprenticeship and already had a job lined up. But a romantic relationship had fallen apart.

"Talented and happy-go-lucky" is how Drew's father, Paul O'Brien, describes him.

Don Rearden, a writer who grew up in Bethel and now is an associate professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, wrote the script for the video.

The message speaks to the abruptness of suicide, O'Brien said.

"Suicide just sneaks up on you," he said. "Families are not ready for it.

"That whole vision of the dogs just disappearing and there being nothingness there, it just struck me from the beginning," O'Brien said. "I just thought if we could translate that into film, I thought it would be really powerful."

The project took months, in part because it started as a video contest, then morphed into a short video about 1½ minutes long. Donlin Gold and the regional Suicide Awareness Intervention Prevention and Healing Coalition donated money to produce it.

The foundation does other work, including hosting a memory room during the Cama-i Dance Festival held each spring in Bethel. In the room, people fill out cards about those lost to suicide. By the festival's end, a wall is plastered with names and memories. This year, the foundation is bringing to the festival a Fairbanks theatrical group and its "Winter Bear" play about an Athabascan teenager contemplating suicide.

So far, the new video is on Facebook, YouTube and the Drew's Foundation web site. O'Brien said he hasn't yet approached television stations about airing it but likely will do so. It should appear on Kaiser's mushing website before this year's Iditarod, which Kaiser is running for the sixth time.

The head of Alaska's suicide prevention council wasn't available Friday afternoon to discuss how the video is being received, but Kaiser said the reaction of children tells him it's the right message.

The kickoff came at a Bethel Regional High School assembly that featured an Iron Dog snowmachine competitor, Steven Boney, and an Alaska National Guard sponsor who spoke to students about goals.

The students in grades six through 12 were restless and rustling on the bleachers by the time the video started, O'Brien said. They recognized the Bethel tundra. "They got quiet," he said. And "when Pete started to talk, they got very quiet."

At the end of the video, Kaiser tells the kids to keep on going.

"If there is anything I learned racing in the Iditarod, it's never give up," Kaiser says. "Never."

In the Bethel high gym, the students cheered and clapped.

It was overwhelming, O'Brien said.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.

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