Recently I attended a conference up in Anchorage facilitated by Qualis Health and the State of Alaska Department of Health & Social Services (DHSS). Each year, in-state and out-of-state mental health, social and juvenile justice professionals come together to discuss the unique needs of Alaskans and how we can continue to serve both the urban as well as the rural populations in this spectacular region. What I like best about this conference, besides the diversity of panels and the third day solely dedicated to culture, is the ability of a wide-range of professionals to get together, talk about current issues and come up with solutions that will not only benefit one agency, but many agencies across the United States. During the 2013 conference and then again in 2014, an issue was brought up that created quite a stir to those of us working with youth outside Alaska-suicide.
Labeled the “Silent Epidemic”, Dr. Ruth Dukoff, Medical Director at North Star Behavioral Health began her 2013 panel by showing a segment of the Discovery channel show, “Flying Wild Alaska.” The segment followed the story of Era airlines taking “the type of business no one hopes for-casket transportation for a teen suicide.” The airline was asked to transport the body of a 17 year old Native boy who had killed himself from the village of Shaktoolich to Koyuk for the funeral. The normal route via boat was unavailable due to the conditions of the Bering Sea. Ariel Tweto, part of the ground crew of her family’s airline, wept as she explained to viewers the teen was her friend’s younger brother. “It happens so much out here and I’m sick of it,” she says her face contorted in grief. After watching the video, the conference audience sat quietly as Dr. Dukoff shared statistics.
The Extent of the Problem
The State of Alaska has the highest rate of suicide per capita in country with Alaskan Native males 15-24 years old having the highest suicide rate of any demographic in the United States with 141.6 suicides per 100,000 youth. Alaska had 1,369 suicides between 2000 and 2009 with at least one suicide occurring in 176 Alaskan communities. The American Association of Suicidology states youth who are exposed to suicide or suicidal behaviors are more at-risk for attempting suicide themselves. In Alaska, suicide ranks number two as the leading cause of death for children ages 5-14, 15-24 and 25-34 dropping to third in the 35-44 age group. Dr. Dukoff shared that almost everyone in rural Alaska knows someone who killed themselves and that more children commit suicide than graduate high school.
Many speculations try to explain the fact Alaskan Natives are nine times more likely to commit suicide than the national average. Historical deprivations and attempts to assimilate Alaskan Natives, disruption of family relationships and deliberate crushing of native culture, traditions, values and language play a huge role in current levels of despair and poverty. Alaskan Native youth are caught between two worlds that don’t have a lot in common. Limited resources, employment opportunities, rampant alcohol and drug use and lack of mental health services all increase hopelessness. A 2001-2002 survey conducted by the Regional Suicide Prevention Taskforce asked 5% of adults and youth (12-18) in 12 villages in Northwest Alaska 5 open-ended questions regarding community beliefs about suicide and its prevention. This Inupiat study asked the question, “Why do young people commit suicide?” and showed adults indicating boredom (19%) was the main reason while youth stated stress (21%) was the driving force behind the numbers. One encouraging fact in the survey was the youths’ overwhelming response (78%) that there is something adults can do to prevent suicide-“Adults should talk, support, encourage, and be role models” and 40% stated “Talking to young people about their future and helping them achieve their dreams” will get them excited about their future. So often, solutions to tough problems seem out of our reach. I’ve felt too many times over the course of my social/justice services career that there was nothing I could do as an individual to make a difference. The Inupiat study reminded me that one person taking the time to work with youth can change a life.
Alaska, particularly rural Alaska, has unique community characteristics. For example, the school district is often the hub of the village. Schools serve not only to educate the population, but also often host community activities and sometimes even acts as the local motel when individuals, such as mental health professionals, visit. Many areas have a Village Public Safety Officer (VPSO) who is often tasked with a wide variety of professional hats, including mayor, fire chief, search and rescue coordinator and/or harbor master. Each of these professionals has the opportunity to reach out to youth, share experiences and offer hope. Organizations such as Native Cry Outreach Alliance, the Jason Foundation at North Star Behavioral Health and Drew Foundation, a Bethel-based suicide awareness and prevention organization, all recognize the ability of individuals to get involved and make a difference. Other organizations and individuals, such as the Native Alaska Heritage Center and Reverend Dr. Michael James Oleksa share their experience and knowledge about native culture with providers, such as those attending the Qualis/DHHS conference. Father Oleksa spoke to us this year about communication and culture. As a non-Native professional it was important to hear that my perceptions of reality may not match those of the youth I am working with.
Unfortunately, teen suicide continues to touch all communities. Fortunately, those of us that work with youth in both social and justice contexts can learn many things from places like Alaska that continue to endure the loss of so many of their young. We can learn that every one of us can make a difference in a child’s life. We can continue to work together to find solutions. And, most important, we should listen to the advice we constantly tell youth-Don’t give up hope.
- The Writing Hand
- Alaska DHHS Suicide Statistics
- Native Cry Outreach Alliance Suicide Prevention Video
- Flying Wild Alaska-Death in Alaska