Young apologizes at AFN for pain caused by suicide comments

U.S. Rep. Don Young told the Alaska Federation of Natives on Friday that he is sorry for the pain his remarks about suicide may have caused people.

"Again, I am profoundly sorry for those that took offense at what I tried to say because they did not and will not take time to understand we have to stop this tragic from occurring again. And I can't do it by myself, but I have given it the best shot and I'll continue to do that. I'll continue to do that so I won't have to have that suffering.

"If you think the last four days have been easy for me, it is not. And those that asked me to apologize, I have. And I hope you in this room accept that apology because I am trying to do the prevention that's necessary," he said.

Speaking at the annual AFN convention at the Dena'ina Center in Anchorage late Friday morning, Young, 81, said his personal feelings about the topic -- because of the loss of a family member by suicide -- "may have caused me to mangle some of my statements and comments, (and) that's caused this uproar.

"But I will tell you how many times I've asked myself, 'Did I do enough? Did I take a nephew away from an abusive father? Did I love him enough? Did I do enough?' And apparently I did not," he said.

He said he made up his mind at that time to try to "prevent the future suicides that will occur."

As he concluded his speech, the audience gave him a standing ovation. Making his way off the podium, Young said hello to people who slapped his back and thanked him. He refused to answer questions from reporters trailing him, and did not respond when a reporter asked him about the nephew who took his life.

Not everyone was happy with Young. Shortly after his speech, in another part of the Dena'ina Center, Young encountered Gloria Poullard, who missed his remarks but wanted to reprimand him about his comments in Wasilla.

"What possessed you to even make a comment like that?" she asked, in an exchange recorded by KTUU. "My nephew just committed suicide."

She was agitated, but Young did not wait to hear her out. He tried to get her to stop talking, bending down close to her and looking over his glasses. He said "hey" and started making a shushing sound.

"You don't you tell me to shush," she said. Young said his nephew had died from suicide and he asked himself if he supported him enough. "Don't you get angry with me. Don't even squeeze my hand," Poullard said. At that, Young let go of her hand and walked off.

A few moments earlier, Young, in his convention speech, had defended his work in Congress in the fight against suicide.

A statewide controversy developed quickly after his remarks regarding suicide at Wasilla High School on Tuesday and at his defense of the remarks at a Palmer senior center on Wednesday. A Wasilla student had taken his own life the previous week and Young, when challenged by students, was argumentative and irritated.

On Wednesday, he said suicide in Alaska didn't exist before government "largesse" gave residents an entitlement mentality. On Friday, he sounded remorseful, saying that suicide is deeply troubling.

"And my record, because I did say what I said, I am profoundly and (genuinely) sorry for the pain it may have caused people. (Genuinely) sorry for the pain of the individual as I have experienced it," he said. "And hopefully you won't have that."

He said his record "paints a very different picture" than that generated by the controversy and said, "I give suicide mental illness -- it is an illness -- high priority."

He made numerous comments about his attitude and said he is motivated by his experiences.

"And I don't share that motification because it is private," he said. "But today I may address a little bit of the private side."

He said "alcohol, drugs, no support, no jobs, no self-determination, no management of wildlife" are among the problems that have to be addressed in rural areas.

Young said he wants to work on expanding the ability of Natives to manage fish and wildlife and control their lands. He said he supports a bill under which "any of the federal agencies regulation laws do not apply to Native lands."

Young said he is passionate about Alaska, rural areas and Alaska Natives. "My heart and my soul has been in the rural areas of Alaska. I want you to recognize that and give me credit where it's due," he said.

Young said he wants to prevent suicide and make Alaska and the villages better places.

"I'll dedicate my life to that, as short as it may be. I'll continue to serve you," he said.

Many of those in the crowd showed their support for Young as he wrapped up his speech. "We love you!" said Charlotte Douthit, opening her arms.

Young squeezed Douthit and one of her daughters, Yvonne Dodds, 67, tight.

"I love that you're still around," Young said to Douthit, 83.

Young taught some of Douthit's 13 kids in Fort Yukon in the 1960s, she said. "He's been a friend many years," she said.

Had she heard of Young's Wasilla comments?

"We heard about it, but you got to tell the young people the truth," she said. "We are ready for him because none of my kids suicide. Thank the Lord, thank the Lord, he's telling the young people the truth.

"There's too many parents busy with bingo," she said. "Run to bingo, leave kids behind. What they gonna do? Some of them get bored, some of them suicide. Parents spend the money, nothing to eat at home."

Jo Royal, originally from McGrath, said there was truth in what Young had said about families and friends needing to be more aware of young people who are struggling.

"Some of it had validity," she said. "We really as a community need to be more family and friend oriented to any of our young people having difficulty."

Young is 81 and at that age people tend to be more cutting and have a little less finesse, she said. As for his AFN speech, Young was earnest, she said.

"I think it was a good effort and it needed to be done, and I can respect a person who makes an apology," she said. "Who hasn't made a mistake?"

AFN President Julie Kitka said there's really no way to appropriately say sorry to families devastated by suicide but that Young's statement was well-meaning.

"I thought Congressman Young spoke very heartfelt and that the issue of suicide and prevention was very near and dear to him and had touched him personally. I think there's not really a way to apologize on things like that. It's probably more just trying to further understanding," she said.

Young's opponent, Democrat Forrest Dunbar, saw the speech and said Young spoke from the heart. "Hopefully, this apology sticks," Dunbar said. "I do believe this one was genuine."

At an AFN booth run by the Alaska chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the wide reach of suicide in rural Alaska was obvious.

Nora Brink, wearing a bright, flowery kuspuk and her glasses propped atop graying hair, posed for a photo beside a hanging quilt showing photographs of six victims from around Alaska.

She brushed a hand across one of the pictures as if caressing a loved one, and spoke in Yup'ik to a nearby friend, describing the young man from Kasigluk who took his life about five years ago. Cang Nicholas, shown healthy and smiling in the sun, was friendly and shy, said Brink. "I was telling her that he committed suicide," she said, describing what she had said in Yup'ik.

James Biela, a board member of the suicide prevention group from Bethel, said he was friends with Nicholas, as well as others from the Southwest region who took their lives.

"We have a lot of people stopping at our booth and asking our opinion about what Don Young said," said Biela.

In an interview before Young's AFN address, Biela said he believed that Young's Wasilla comments were wrong. "It has nothing to do with public assistance, and a lot of families give a lot of support.

"But it has people talking about suicide," he said.

Nicholas had excellent family support, Biela said. The chapter formed a year after Nicholas took his life, he said.