Presented by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this year, highlighting mental health in Alaska is more urgent than ever.
Faced with increased stressors from the COVID-19 pandemic, the state has seen an increase in mental health crises, including suicide, ripple through Alaskan communities. Alaska has the second highest rate of suicide nationwide according to the Center for Disease Control and in 2020, Careline Alaska received more calls than any other year on record, with the last two quarters July-September and October-December receiving the most calls.
Thankfully, resources are available for people experiencing mental health conditions, and there are a few practical, accessible suggestions that can help you and your family navigate challenging times.
With some simple tools, “we can incorporate positive habits as a way to support our own mental wellness and lead a healthy life,” Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Suicide Prevention Program Coordinator Carrie Rowland said.
‘More common than we think’
Most mental health conditions do not have a single cause. Although many factors contribute to mental health, clear connections can be made to the pandemic’s increased workloads, which has caused burnout and staffing challenges in many sections, including health care.
Alaska and other northern latitudes also see an additional risk factor – an increase in the number of suicide deaths each spring, research has shown.
“Mental health conditions are more common than we think,” Rowland said. “These conditions can develop slowly, or symptoms can appear suddenly after you have experienced a stressful event.”
Subsistence activities: Another way to boost your well-being
Mental health is intertwined with well-being. Alaskans can take care of themselves and their families by focusing on good sleep, building strong social connections, and eating a healthy diet, Rowland said.
Subsistence activities such as hunting and gathering traditional foods has helped to protect people living in the Arctic for centuries, Rowland said. Traditional foods such as salmon and berries are packed with nutrients like Vitamin B, D, and Omega-3 fats, which plays important roles in brain function and immunity.
Other ways to boost your well-being include spending time with an animal companion, focusing on building a work-life balance, or scheduling in personal time for an activity you enjoy. Humor and laughter also boost problem-solving ability and help people bounce back from stress, Rowland said.
For many, simple tips may not be enough. Professionals can also help individuals and families address mental health issues through a variety of therapies and interventions.
‘Take all signs seriously’
Warning signs someone might be considering suicide include depression, moodiness, hopelessness, and behavioral changes, Rowland said. Family and friends may notice an increase in risky behavior, withdrawal from others, misuse of drugs or alcohol, or decreased motivation and interest in appearance.
Other warning signs include stressors like the loss of a job, major relationship or loved one, or previous suicide attempts.
A person who is struggling may post concerning messages on social media, give away their possessions, or make statements like “all of my problems will be over soon,” or “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
“Take all signs seriously,” Rowland said. “The more signs you observe, the greater the risk.”
Navigating hard conversations
For those concerned about a family member or friend, it’s important to have a direct conversation about what you’ve noticed. While those conversations can be difficult, Rowland offered several suggestions for carrying them out.
First, “be okay with feeling uncomfortable,” she said.
Talk to the person alone in a private setting. Allow plenty of time to talk freely. Listen with your full attention, and don’t rush to judgement.
Ask directly if the person is having thoughts of suicide. Ask if the person is willing to go get help with you. Offer hope. Let the person know that you want them to live and that they are not alone. Then, follow up with the person later.
During the conversation, try not to pass judgement on the other person. Avoid telling someone what to do, or letting your own emotions steer your response. Don’t minimize or argue with someone’s feelings.
Talking to teens
Rowland offered specific tips for parents talking to teens about mental health and suicide – starting with being genuine about the difficulty of the conversation.
“Let them know that it is hard for you to talk about and that you understand that it may be difficult for them as well,” Rowland said.
Start the conversation by letting your teen know what you’ve noticed in a non-judgmental way. Choose a comfortable location or setting, such as during an everyday activity. Allow for times of silence and active listening, and use comforting language.
‘Recovery is Possible’: Resources for Alaska
If you or someone you know is struggling, talking to someone you trust is a good place to start. Consider finding professional help, a support group, or a peer group for additional support.
“Help is out there and recovery is possible,” Rowland said.
Careline Alaska’s hotline is available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for people experiencing mental health issues or those concerned about someone. 1-877-266-4357, or text 4HELP to 839863.
ANTHC’s Behavioral Health Wellness Clinic offers telehealth counseling, assessments, and referral support to adult Alaska Tribal Health System beneficiaries anywhere in Alaska. You can easily access care from your personal cell phone or computer. To learn more or become a client, visit www.anthc.org/bhwc or call 907-729-2492, Monday-Friday from 8:30 am - 5:00 pm.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
This story was sponsored by the 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 sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with ANTHC. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.