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Seeking solutions to staggering Alaska Native suicide rates

Alex DeMarban
U.S. Rep. Don Young at the 2011 AFN convention.
Stephen Nowers photo
Village Public Safety Officers John Shivel, left, from Unalakleet and Jerome Kelly from Quinhagak man the VPSO booth at the 2011 AFN convention on Thursday.
Stephen Nowers photo
Shaaxaani kisses her sleeping daughter Naat Stlaa during Thursday's AFN convention in Anchorage. Shaaxaani uses a sea otter pelt as a baby blanket for Naat Stlaa.
Stephen Nowers photo
The 2011 Alaska Federation of Native Convention crowd waits for U.S. Rep. Don Young to begin is remarks on Thursday morning.
Stephen Nowers photo
The 2011 AFN crowd applauds keynote speaker John Baker on Thursday.
Stephen Nowers photo
2011 Iditarod champion John Baker signs autographs for fans after giving the keynote address at the Alaska Federation of Natives conventions.
Stephen Nowers photo
2011 Iditarod champion John Baker speaks to the 2011 AFN convention. Baker was the keynote speaker on Thursday.
Stephen Nowers photo
U.S. Rep. Don Young speaks to the 2011 Alaska Federation of Natives on the first day of the annual conference.
Stephen Nowers photo

Young Alaska Natives hit hard by suicide, sometimes speaking through choked voices and tears, told a field hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that youth are key to reducing the decades-old epidemic among Alaska Natives and American Indians.  

At the same hearing today, top officials involved in suicide prevention at the state and federal levels told hearing organizer U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that not enough is being done to address the towering problem.  

The hearing was scheduled to coincide with the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention in Anchorage. Generally considered the state’s largest gathering of Natives, with delegates arriving for three days from scores of villages, the event wrapped up Saturday.

Murkowksi was the only senator present, but staff from other U.S. Senate offices, including Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, also was in attendance.

Experts at the hearing cited a number of problems with past suicide-prevention efforts. Tiny tribes in Alaska Native villages often lose out on state and federal funding because they don’t have the staff to apply for competitive grants. Money that is available is often short-term and for narrowly focused projects, with one-size-fits-all requirements that don’t necessarily meet the needs of local communities. And organizations too often fight suicide in its final phases, focusing on crisis hotlines, for example, rather than tackling depression earlier in life.

Everyone acknowledged that friends, families and communities are the first line of defense.  

The rate of suicide in Indian Country and Native villages is staggering. In general, American Indians and Natives kill themselves close to twice as often as other Americans. But the rates are often much higher in certain regions, such as in Western Alaska, where it’s been seven times as high as the national average, and among certain age groups, including Alaska Native teens and young adults.     

Megan Gregory, a 24-year-old Tlingit originally from Kake, used her floor-time as a panelist to call on every Alaska Native organization in the state, from small tribes to big corporations, to create youth councils that foster new leaders, provide input to adults and create a network of eyes and ears who can watch out for troubled friends.

“It will instill hope and confidence and suicide rates will drop dramatically,” said Gregory, who launched a Youth Ambassadors program in several Southeast Alaska communities so young people could work with school districts and other groups to combat suicides. She hopes to take it statewide.

Tessa Baldwin, 17 and originally from Kotzebue, said her life’s experiences have been laced by suicide. Her uncle hung himself in a neighboring bedroom when she was 5. By 10, she’d known six people who took their lives, traumas that always punched a hole in the Northwest Alaska hub city and nearby villages. Last year, her boyfriend took his life.

Now a senior at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, she’s the youth representative on Alaska’s Statewide Suicide Prevention Council and a member of the Youth Ambassador program.

She’s also launched her own group to stop the deaths.  

“We are getting petitions signed, doing service projects, sharing stories, passing messages on” about the devastation suicide leaves behind, she said.  

What else is needed to make a difference? A database of statewide events, programs and groups, to help people learn about efforts that are making a difference, she said.

Other witnesses at the hearing included Richard McKeon, chief suicide prevention officer at the Maryland-based Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and Diane Casto, the top suicide-prevention official in the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, as well as a representative of the National Indian Health Board.

Suicide is caused by a complex mix of social factors, including historical trauma, substance abuse, sexual abuse and family violence. The issue needs to be dealt with comprehensively and with long-term attention, panelists said.

Alcohol is often a common denominator in suicides and the social problems that lead to suicides, Casto said.

The young panelists at the hearing also touted a program in Kotzebue -- the Teck John Baker Youth Leaders Program -- that may have helped reduce suicides in that region.

High school and middle school students at village schools are selected by peers to take on leadership roles, including combating suicide prevention. Because peers do the voting by secret ballot, the leaders aren’t just popular jocks and straight A students. They range from beauty queens to dope smokers, said Gregory.

They’re considered the “elders” in the school system, and like the real village elders, they’re role models and leaders that look after the wellbeing of younger students, said Evon Peter, director of the Maniilaq Wellness Program and a co-leader in the John Baker program.

Historic traumas rip cultural fabric of First Peoples

Peter, another witness and a 35-year-old Gwich’in from the Interior, focused on historical trauma -- caused in part by government policies to wipe away Native culture, language and spiritual beliefs.

With long pauses and teary eyes, he described how disease ripped apart his grandmother’s family, as it did for many Alaska Natives. After her parents died, his grandmother was adopted out to another community and sexually abused by men there.

As for his mother, she “was born into a world that immediately told her, both in popular culture and in government policies, that she must change.”

For too many Natives, the “multiple layers of pain associated with generations of assault, abuse and loss are too easily numbed with alcohol and drugs,” he said. But it only magnifies problems.  

Suicide is an issue throughout Alaska, but the rates have remained especially bad among Natives for decades, though millions of dollars and a variety of approaches have been marshaled to them.

Murkowski asked Casto and McKeon if enough was being done to fight the problem among Natives and Indians.

Negative, they replied.

“We all need to do more,” said McKeon.

A single solution doesn’t exist, he said, but it’s important to “talk to one another, to learn what’s having an impact, and to build on those efforts.”

Strides have been made. SAMSHA’s Native Aspirations has provided funding in 49 tribal communities nationwide. It’s unique because it lets Native and Indian communities take the lead role in developing suicide-prevention programs that address youth violence and bullying.

Casto said groups are now working together to develop comprehensive approaches.

Murkowski: Begin suicide interventions early in life

But much more is needed. Grant programs need to take the long view, and more non-competitive grants are needed to prevent agencies from fighting for limited dollars when they should be working together.

“We must focus on a comprehensive continuum of care, with a higher priority on mental health,” said Casto. “Our efforts have lacked consistency, intensity and comprehensiveness.”

Murkowski suggested that intervention should begin earlier in children’s lives. It may be time to update a well-regarded study, called ACES, that’s at least a decade old, she said. It considered the lifetime of mental-health damage that can be caused by adverse childhood experiences, or ACES, such as sexual abuse.

Money was provided for the study, but not to do any follow-up work, so its value languished, Casto said. But it’s become popular in recent years, and the state is incorporating its broad view into how it structures grants and fights depression.

H. Sally Smith of Dillingham, an executive member of the National Indian Health Board, said leaders need to recognize the enormity of the problem and dedicate a tribal set-aside to combat suicides and the complex mental-health issues they stem from. The money wouldn’t pass through the state as it currently does, a situation that can lead to delays and not enough money to bring about change.

Last year, Murkowski held another Indian Affairs field hearing on suicide prevention in the Southwest Alaska community of Bethel. Aghast, she often retells the story of one teen who said suicide had become normal.

At this most recent hearing, she asked the panel with young people for their final statement on how to end the scourge. The youngest panelist had perhaps the most powerful words.

“It’s not hard to make someone’s day, to tell them you care about them, that you love them,” said Baldwin. “That’s my advice. Tell someone you love them, it’s the first step to preventing suicide.”

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com