Program targets roots of suicide
January 27th, 2012 | Carey Restino
Those who have for years attempted to unlock the riddle of high suicide rates in northern rural Alaska say their approach is holistic — looking at all aspects of each person, family and community and working to heal the wounds therein.
That's a tall order, but is an approach that is taking shape through community forums, camps, school and peer leadership programs throughout Northwest Alaska.
"We have to begin by living the example of what we would like to see," said Evon Peter, director of the Maniilaq Wellness Program?"It's a pretty huge task. This is long-term work, trying to address some of the root factors that contribute to suicide and trying to decrease or eliminate some of those factors."
A year ago, leaders in the quest to quell high suicide rates in rural northern Alaska met to see how they could pool their limited resources for the greater good of all their programs. From that initial meeting, a collaboration was born — the Northwest Alaska Wellness Initiative — which has since gained momentum.
Early participants in the initiative included the Maniilaq Association, Birdie Trainor with the Nome-based Kawerak Wellness Program, and Michelle Woods, who works with a peer-mentoring program in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District based in Kotzebue. A grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has buoyed the effort, funding the collaboration for the next three years.
To the outside observer, however, trying to address the many factors contributing to the high suicide rates across rural Alaska — substance abuse, sexual abuse, depression, lack of employment opportunities — is an overwhelming task.
But Peter says it's important to look at the multiple contributing factors that connect to one and other and lead toward suicidal impulses.
Change must come from local level
Peter said individuals and communities have to want to work toward change for the programs to be effective.
"This change is only going to happen when people at the local level take up the work and decide to move forward," he said. "It's up to the individual, family and community to really want to address problems that they have identified."
Peter said the programs the Northwest Alaska Wellness Initiative has been working through have met with varied success. Programs include week-long intensive summer camps for youth, community forums and a school-based youth leadership program. Some things have worked well. Others have met with tepid response. It varies greatly from community to community, based in part on the distinct issues faced in each area, he said. Some areas have seen a large portion of the community turn out for the community forum, others only draw a handful of participants.
Peter said the point of the program is not to stand up in front of the community and tell people what to do but rather to talk about issues and support local efforts to make changes that address what each community identifies as its biggest contributing factors to suicide.
All community programs are primarily facilitated by Alaska Natives, he said, and nine villages in the Northwest Alaska and Bering Straights region will be visited in each year of the program.
Camps build relationships, coping skills for youth
One program facilitated by the partnership that is receiving much positive feedback is a series of summer camps for youth. The camps focus as much on building connections between youth and adults as they do on suicide prevention strategies. The summer camps are all about teaching coping strategies for dealing with past pains, as well as for future frustrations, Peter said.
Some 30 people come out onto the land to participate in these camps, Peter said, which take a cultural-based approach to wellness and counseling. The activities serve multiple levels, he said, ranging from building healthy relationships to giving youth tools to help support their peers.
Documentary films produced on the camps give a glimpse into the positive healing that occurs through these programs, which incorporate a lot of activity, strength-building exercises and connection. Youth said they found ways to communicate their feelings and deal with past hurts through the camp, and Peter said youth who participated in the camps years ago have relayed it was a turning point in their lives.
Peer mentoring program gains momentum
The Teck John Baker Youth Leaders Program began several years ago after a spate of youth suicides. The program asks youth to write down the names of the students they would most trust to turn to in crisis. Those students who received the most "nominations" were then trained in how to work with their peers.
In addition to learning how to be good listeners, these youth are taught about resources that exist, such as the Alaska Careline (1-877-266-4357), a resource for immediate assistance that is staffed by Alaskans.
The beauty of the program, Peter said, is that the youth who are trained include more than just the top students or overachievers.
"You don't just end up with the valedictorians," he said, adding that if your goal is to help peers help each other, eliminating those who are not honor roll students is a mistake.
While statistically it takes time to judge any suicide prevention program, the impact so far seems to be largely positive for the district, and there is talk of expanding the program beyond the borough and into other areas.
Statewide conference focuses similarly on holistic approach
Earlier this month, community leaders working on suicide prevention from around the state met to discuss the recently drafted Alaska State Suicide Prevention Plan. While the state has a well-developed crisis response system, Kate Burkhart, executive director of the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council, said the recently drafted plan focuses on promoting wellness, healthy families and healthy communities so the crisis point is never reached.
The plan identifies goals, and strategies for reaching those goals, such as encouraging Alaskans to accept responsibility for preventing suicide.
"We want every Alaskan to understand that suicide is preventable," Burkhart said. "There are very concrete and discrete ways a person can take action, like focusing on making healthy choices."
Burkhart said the state is taking notice of programs that are working in Alaska, and funding was recently included in Gov. Sean Parnell's budget for school-based suicide prevention programs. Whether that funding makes it through the legislature is yet to be seen, but Burkhart said programs considered in area schools are all evidence-based programs — ones that have been reviewed and are shown to produce positive outcomes.
There is an effort underway to measure with a survey the impact of the Alaska programs — including those in Northwest Alaska — in part to help with future funding efforts.
At the state conference, participants were grouped by region, and each region was encouraged to form its own goals and objectives. For the Northwest region, more collaboration like that seen in the past year was high on the list, and expanding that collaboration to include exchange of ideas with other people throughout the state was identified as a priority. A statewide Web site is being set up to facilitate that exchange.
"It will showcase some of the efforts happening so we can learn from one another and do a lot less recreating the wheel," Peter said.
That collaboration is also helpful in allowing those working in suicide prevention to support each other. Oftentimes, the work can be emotionally draining.
"Every time we hear about a suicide, it is heartbreaking," Peter said. "These people care quite a bit about the people and communities they work with. They are really putting their heart into this work."