Teens urge parental involvement at suicide summit

By Alex Demarban
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) October 2010

Distraught over the suicides of their friends, teens from Southwest Alaska fought back tears as they pleaded with parents to connect with children. They blamed the deaths on family abuse, bullying, alcoholism and other problems.

Now is not the time to be quiet, they said last week at a suicide roundtable convened in Bethel by Sen Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “I myself was thinking suicidal,” said Anna Stone, a 15-year old from Hooper Bay. “But my friends, they were talking to me about if I was gone ... who’s going to take your part in your family? And that really got me thinking.”

Stone bit her lip and trembled during a long stretch of silence. She said keeping quiet will cost more lives.

“Talking to your kids would help a lot and building a relationship and having family meetings would help a lot,” she said.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta has suffered an unusually high number of suicides since late spring, including five in Hooper Bay since June, said Capt. Steve Arlow, commander of the Alaska State Troopers in Western Alaska.

Another suicide occurred over the weekend in the Alaska Native village of 1,200, located on the coast about 150 miles northeast of Bethel, he said.

Murkowski organized the meeting because she wanted experts to hear from young survivors and gather ideas about how to better combat the problem.

“It deeply concerns me that rural Alaska, from the North Slope to down here on the Y-K Delta, has the highest suicide rate in the nation,” Murkowski said.

The statewide rate is consistently twice the national average and reaches six times the average in some Western Alaska regions, she said.

The roundtable included lawmakers, health experts, members of the state’s suicide prevention council and others. Gov. Sean Parnell was on hand, along with the top tribal affairs advisor for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and a staffer for North Dakota Senator Byron Dorgan, who sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee with Murkowski.

Officials at the table said they don’t have answers to stop the scourge. Suicides have plagued Western Alaska for decades, as cultural change and historical trauma blended with high rates of poverty, binge drinking, domestic violence, sexual assault and other problems.

Eleven people killed themselves in the Bethel-region during a six-week stretch in May and June, many of them young males, said Gene Peltola, chief executive of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., which operates more than 50 clinics in the region.

The 10-year average for the region is 13.5 suicides a year.

“It’s an epidemic,” he said, one that health care workers, police, tribes and others can’t solve alone.

“If we’re going to overcome this it’s going to be all of us working together as a team.”

More than 200 people attended the meeting at the Bethel cultural center.

Teens and young adults did most of the talking. Their voices cracked with sadness or sometimes failed them altogether.

Three high school students from the village of Scammon Bay, near Hooper Bay, flew to Bethel to share their advice.

Axel Kaganak, 19, stood silently for more than a minute during his first attempt to speak, then sat back down.

Two young people have killed themselves in that village of 550 since May, according to trooper reports.

Later, Kaganak returned to speak to explain warning signs.

“If someone is like, thinking suicidal, they’re very quiet or don’t want to be around anyone or give off valuable stuff to their friends or might be talking to their friends about it,” he said.

People should try to encourage those students to keep busy with activities such as chopping wood, jogging or playing ball, he said.

Patrick Ulroan, 19, said teachers asked him to be a Natural Helper during his four years attending Hooper Bay high school, meaning he talked with peers about their problems.

Before he graduated in 2009, he met with dozens of kids who said they wanted to take their lives. Bullies picked on more than 20. Others complained of parents who spent money on booze, gambling and marijuana, he said.

James Hoelscher, Hooper Bay’s village public safety officer and its former police chief, said he’s seen more than 25 suicides in his hometown. He’s worked the majority of those calls.

The father of children ranging in age from 2 to 16, the deaths hit close to home.

“As a parent, it’s terrifying to wonder what’s going through our kids’ heads,” he said. “If you ask me what the answers are, I don’t know, but I think a strong base in sobriety has something do with it.”

Erica Stone, 23, said her sister killed herself six years ago, following the suicide of another family member. Stone was nearly the same age as her sister. The loss was devastating.

Parents, friends and loved ones need to let others know they appreciate them.

“Show that you care and love them and that will just make them stand higher,” she said.

She came close to attempting suicide this winter, but realized she has an important experience to share.

“I really desire to reach out to young people in my community and tell them they are valuable,” she said.

One village provided an example of a program that’s working.

Alakanuk, a village of 700 on the lower Yukon River, suffered its own string of suicides years ago, prompting local leaders to search for answers. They found one reason teens kill themselves is because they’re having sex so early in life – as if they were married – and become overwhelmed with grief when the relationships end, said Paula Ayunerak.

With help from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the village created a program called Elluam Tungiinun, meaning “toward wellness” in Yup’ik.

Adults involve teens in cultural activities such as trapping, whale hunting and plant gathering. They instill cultural values in the students, such as self-esteem and respect for others.

“We taught children not to drink alcohol or take drugs,” and to have a strong faith in God, said Ayunerak.

The program, funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Alaska Native Health Research, has improved communication between parents and kids and people are drinking less, she said.

People also gathered in a healing circle – a once-practiced ritual – to banish the spirit of suicide. That was three years ago, and the village hasn’t lost anyone to the malady since then, she said.

“You can feel it in the village – the change – and it makes you feel good,” she said.