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Dramatic suicide drop in Northwest after students take charge

Alex DeMarban
Stephen Nowers illustration

A region long battered by some of the nation's highest suicide rates has some welcome good news -- a drop in deaths credited in part to teenage students. 

When the Teck John Baker Youth Leaders Program began a few years ago, eight students in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District took their lives during a year-long period ending in August 2009, said Michelle Woods, the program coordinator. 

That's about 15 percent of the 54 people who killed themselves in the entire region of 7,500 residents for the entire decade, according to numbers from the state Bureau of Vital Statistics. Those suicides made the Northwest Arctic the deadliest region for suicides in Alaska -- and possibly the entire nation -- during that time. 

This year, not a single suicide has rocked the school district, Woods said. Officials there are praising the 100-plus students trained to root out depression among their friends and lift morale in their villages. 

The key? Kids are more likely to tell friends about their problems than anyone else, said Brett Kirk, a former leader in the program until he graduated from high school this spring.  

Now 18, and a freshman engineering student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kirk joined the effort because he was tired of seeing people in his hometown of Noatak, a village of 500 about 60 miles north of Kotzebue, trashed by drugs and booze. 

"I wanted to help my community," he said. "I've seen a bunch of things that most students my age shouldn't see. I've seen my personal, close family members wasted out of their minds or high on a substance. It disgusted me, really, and I wanted that to change." 

Noatak hasn't seen many suicides, but a student killed himself a few years back. "I saw the kid the day before," Kirk said. "And the next day he was gone." 

While he was involved in the program, Kirk and other leaders organized annual community meetings to talk about alcohol abuse and suicide. They hosted basketball tournaments and movie nights at the gym. They hung posters around town urging kids to stop partying and get to class on time. 

Sometimes, they sat and talked with students who were involved in a break-up or who had lost a family member. Sometimes they recommended a counselor get involved, but that doesn't always help, said Kirk. "Sometimes a peer-to-peer interaction has more effect," he said. 

Youth interaction is critical to the program’s success because kids are more likely to speak with someone their own age than a family member or adult, organizers said. 

In the past, elders visited schools to talk about suicide, but they often failed to make a connection, Kirk said. Sometimes the elders scolded students in Inupuiaq, but the message was often lost because many kids don't speak the language. 

"It's sometimes hard to understand (elders)," Kirk said. "Sometimes they have a nasty voice, but truthfully, what they say, it's really important. If students could get the message behind their stories, it'd be a lot simpler."

The high school kids aren't counselors. But they've learned how to intervene and get help if a friend is going through a particularly rough time, said Woods. They aren’t necessarily standout students or popular athletes, either.

To get the program started, high school students were asked to write a note saying who they'd turn to if they needed help. Leaders were picked from those "secret ballots" and included students of all stripes -- from overachievers to dope-smokers to bullies. 

At trainings, they learn such things as when to intervene. 

"They're our eyes and ears," Woods said. "They're looking to make sure there's no possible (suicide) clustering. They're checking (on) family members and students who may be closely related to a deceased person." 

Kotzebue's youth leadership program is just one of several efforts attempting to tackle the problem in the area. 

After a rash of deaths in late 2008, local leaders launched suicide-prevention walks that gave people a chance to speak out. Those walks have spread statewide. 

And Maniilaq, the tribally run social-service provider in the region, is battling suicide on a number of fronts, officials said. The nonprofit has organized summer subsistence camps to build cultural awareness and self esteem among youth. It's increased the number of therapists and improved training for village-based counselors. Maniilaq also plays a role in the leadership program in Kotzebue and in the town of Unalakleet in the neighboring Nome region, where a similar effort is budding. 

Suicide a 'complex issue' in rural Alaska

Experts say it's difficult to know exactly why suicides rise and fall in given years. Progress can take years to gauge, especially when dealing with populations as small as the borough's 7,500 residents.  

"Suicide is complex, with many contributing social and historical factors," said Evon Peter, director of the Maniilaq Wellness Program

Sexual abuse, neglect, alcohol or drug addiction and historical trauma can all play a role. A single event, such as divorce or the death of a loved one, can push someone over the edge. Often alcohol is involved. 

"It will take time to heal, break cycles of abuse and strengthen the overall wellness of our communities," Peter said. 

Breaking those cycles will "naturally lead to less suicide," he said. 

Suicides among all ages are down this year in the region. Bree Swanson, who oversees Maniilaq's behavioral health programs, thinks that's because of the broad effort to attack the problem. “It's a good year for us,” she allowed.

With teens often the most at-risk population, the youth leaders program is a key part of the solution. Ann Marie O'Brien, the district's assistant superintendent, said last year was the first since 1999, when she joined the district, without a student suicide. 

"This is very significant," she said. "Having students directly involved is critical, because they're in villages all the time." 

The program's namesake glows with praise, too. 

"There's no doubt it's the most successful program we've ever introduced in our region, and it's going to do wonders in the future," said John Baker, last year's record-setting Iditarod champion from Kotzebue and a frequent motivational speaker in classrooms. 

The school district's board changed the program's name this year, after receiving a $1.25 million donation from Teck Alaska Inc., the company that operates the nearby Red Dog mine, O'Brien said. The gift arrived just as the federal grant that supported the program ended. 

The Youth Leaders program costs $250,000 annually, with most of the costs being Woods' salary and the expense of flying students around for workshops. 

Youth leaders can stay involved through the summer, which often is the deadliest stretch for student suicides, Woods said. "It doesn’t sound right because there's all this sun out there," she said. 

But school provides a structure that's missing in summer, and that can be a problem if kids lack supervision. 

An alarming number, she said, live in broken homes. Their parents drink and fight, so the students have a hard time getting to sleep. Some students are physically or sexually abused. Others have seen relatives or friends die in accidents or take their own lives, leaving a legacy of pain that often goes unaddressed because of the lack of mental-health care workers. 

"They tell me about it," she said. 

Each year, youth leaders gather in one community for annual training, at which they're taught how to organize events and serve as role models. They can pull younger students into a hallway for a talking-to when they've disrupted class or hurt another kid's feelings. 

"It's successful because it's totally kid-driven," Woods said. "(The student leaders) have this incredible power they don't understand they have. Once they realize they have this power to influence younger kids, they can actually make some positive changes." 

Nobody knows if suicide numbers will remain low in the region, but the gift from Teck means the program will stick around for another five years, said O'Brien. 

"I can't predict the future," she said. "But we can prepare ourselves and be as responsive as we can for our students." 

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com