Alaska’s rural communities are as diverse in culture as they are in geography, so it should come as no surprise that they all have their own ways of addressing challenges. In a state where the rate of death by suicide is one of the highest in the nation, suicide prevention is a statewide concern -- but just as there’s no single “right” way of preparing akutaq or universal Alaska Native language, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to saving lives.
Today Alaska Native people from diverse backgrounds and organizations are tackling suicide prevention through locally grown programs with the support of their communities, using culture and traditional ways to uplift youth and adults.
Because each community has its own unique needs and way of life, the programs delivered may look different -- from traditional men’s houses to talking circles to helping Elders -- but they have one characteristic in common: These programs focus on creating connections for people who may feel isolated.
Here’s a look at just a few of the locally grown programs that are working to prevent suicide in Alaska.
Mountain Village: Growing through strength
The goal of the Lower Yukon School District’s Natural Helpers program, according to Sarah Peterson of Mountain Village, is to build resilience and learn to cope with everyday problems using Yup’ik cultural values and activities.
Peterson helped create the Natural Helpers program, which has grown through a combination of retreats, cultural activities, and safeTALK, a Stop Suicide Alaska training that prepares teens and adults to identify and assist people who may be having suicidal thoughts. She emphasizes three key tenets with parents and teachers in the community: prevention, intervention and postvention (a term used in the suicide prevention field to refer to response and support following a suicide death). Peterson encourages parents to talk with their children, creating an open line of communication.
“The kids need to learn to open up as well, because that’s what breaks the barrier of depression and aloneness,” Peterson said.
Substance abuse, a significant factor in Alaska’s high suicide rate, is one topic she strives to address through open communication. Peterson said she’s working to find ways to teach youth about the impact of alcohol and drugs on the body so they can make safe, healthy choices.
In addition to learning to communicate more openly, Natural Helpers assist local Elders in tasks like chopping wood, shoveling snow, washing dishes and taking out the trash. Peterson said she encourages youth to form connections with Elders and the local community so they have additional support outside of school and home.
“They are connected to Elders (so) they are connected to people that they know will encourage them, that will help them,” Peterson said.
Peterson knows firsthand what it’s like to consider suicide. When speaking with young people, parents and teachers across the school district, she shares her personal story of attempting suicide as a teenager. She credits a friend and her father with saving her by working to ensure she felt loved and heard. Now she works to help share that strength with young people in her region.
“I want them to be able to learn how to become more resilient and to cope with stress, and to remember people’s stories of survivors,” Peterson said.
Embracing Yuuyaraq in Norton Sound
If you go further up the coast to Stebbins and St. Michael, you’ll find youth and adults participating in Norton Sound Health Corporation’s Yuuyaraq program, which draws on the teachings in Harold Napoleon’s “Yuuyaraq: The Way of the Human Being.”
Napoleon’s essay about the impact of colonization has become a must-read for anyone who wants to gain a deeper perspective into the intergenerational traumas Alaska Native people experienced, first under Russia and later when the Russian occupation gave way to the U.S. policy of forced assimilation.
“It is all about true history, colonization, impacts on whaling and (the) flu epidemic,” said Keith Morrison, a prevention specialist with NSHC Behavioral Health Services. “It includes many of the markers that (have) been the traumas -- that we have been generationally fighting against.”
The challenges that many Alaska Native people continue to experience, like substance abuse and violence, are today believed to be symptoms of intergenerational trauma, the legacy of events like those Napoleon discusses in his essay.
After a relative died by suicide, former school principal Ward Walker decided to dedicate his life to promoting sobriety, reducing suicide and addressing mental health. Today he’s a clinician working in St. Michael and Stebbins, communities where Walker says unemployment and a lack of housing contribute to despair and desperation in local young adults. Together with village-based counselor Cecilia Mike, Walker uses “Yuuyaraq” as a tool to treat substance abuse.
Walker and Mike worked with community members in Stebbins to build the Friendship Qasgiq house, a place for events, activities and meals. In Yup’ik tradition, a qasgiq is a men’s communal house. The Friendship Qasgiq is a place for local people to receive counseling. Walker said the clinic works closely with local schools to refer young people who may need help. They also host evening activities for middle and high school students, like movies, game nights and karaoke.
Walker said the qasgiq uses an “assets model” to provide young people positive interaction with a healthy, sober and caring role model -- and “Cecilia (Mike) is certainly that,” he said.
Friendship Qasgiq also offers a culturally responsive substance abuse program. Ward and Mike worked with the community to create a program that incorporates elements from White Bison Wellbriety Inc., an American Indian/Alaska Native nonprofit organization that offers sobriety, recovery, addictions prevention and wellness resources nationwide. According to the group’s website, “The ‘Well’ part of Wellbriety is the inspiration to go on beyond sobriety and recovery, committing to a life of wellness and healing every day.”
Healing young men’s hearts in Southeast
Damen Bell-Holter grew up in Hydaburg and went on to live out the hoop dreams shared by many young Alaskans, playing Division I college basketball and going on to play professionally. After retiring from a career in the NBA and European basketball leagues, Bell-Holter identified a lack of resources and mentors for boys and men in his region. (Alaska Native men die by suicide at a rate that is four times the national average.) He returned to Alaska and joined Sealaska Corp. as its director of community and youth programming.
“I have a unique platform and access,” Bell-Holter said. He’s often invited to Southeast communities to speak to groups, attend culture camps or host a basketball clinic. Now when those invitations are extended, Bell-Holter will ask if he can also host a talking circle for boys and men.
“I want to normalize talking about uncomfortable topics,” Bell-Holter said.At a recent culture camp, Bell-Holter recalled, he hosted daily talking circles for boys and men. Each day the circle grew, and on the final day, one young man opened up about his traumatic childhood. Through his sharing, others were able to better understand him, creating an opportunity for connection with a young man who had initially isolated himself.
Bell-Holter said he believes creating space for men and boys to talk about the impact of colonization and traumas will start the necessary healing that must happen for men alongside healing that is happening for women.
“By healing our own men, we solve a lot of problems,” Bell-Holter said.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Visit ANTHC’s Suicide Prevention Program for resources and events. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, the Alaska Careline offers free, immediate and confidential help at 1-877-266-4357. Text 4help to 839863 from 3-11 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.
This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.