Op-Ed: More tribal support one answer to suicide epidemic

Last month I convened a roundtable discussion in Bethel on an issue of grave importance to Southwestern Alaska -- youth suicide.

Joined by the Association of Village Council Presidents and the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation, we held a learning session to figure out where we are going wrong and how to change the desperate condition we find ourselves in regarding the Native youth suicide rate.

Alaska has known for more than a decade that the rate of suicide among Native youth is the highest in the nation.

A 2003 study of Injury Mortality Among American Indian and Alaska Native Children and Youth documented that the suicide rate in the Indian Health Service Alaska Region was 23.8 per 100,000 population, nearly five points higher than the Aberdeen Region in the Great Plains and the Tucson Region, which ranked second and third, behind Alaska.

Overall, Alaska has the second highest rate of suicide in the United States, twice the national average. On the North Slope and in Western Alaska the suicide rate is five times the average statewide rate.

While we have known for a long time that suicide is a problem of epidemic problems in our villages it is sadly one that we often grieve and forget. The spike in the rate of suicides and attempted suicides in Western Alaska this summer reminds all Alaskans that we must pursue solutions with a far greater urgency.

During six weeks in May nine young people, all in their teens or early 20s, took their lives. In Emmonak, for example, the attempted suicide of the 16-year-old daughter of a well known community activist was averted by quick family action. Such anecdotes remind us that the suicide crisis is not just measured in statistics. It is measured in the tears of people we know and breaks our hearts.

Alaska can no longer admit that it has a suicide problem but ignore the epidemic. Yes, we have suicide prevention programs, but what are we missing?

The overwhelming message that came out of my roundtable discussion is that communities must take the lead in prevention. Communities must own their prevention projects. Elders must be involved in leading the way and parents, friends and loved ones must take a renewed interest in the lives of our youth.

"Show them that you care and love them and that will just make them stand higher," said a 23-year-old who suffered the loss of her sister to suicide six years ago, the second family member to die.

Others urged a return to involving young people in traditional activities, such as trapping, whale hunting and plant gathering. One village convened a healing circle to banish the spirit of suicide three years ago and had not experienced an incident since.

The answer to the suicide epidemic will come from concerted efforts at the village level to heal broken hearts and broken spirits. But the federal and state governments are vital partners in these efforts.

At one time, through the late Senator Ted Stevens' leadership, Congress funded a wellness program for rural Alaska. The Association of Village Council Presidents used this funding to establish the Kinguliamta Ciunerkaat program, which means "Securing a Future for Our Children." But the program suffered when earmark funding ran out, even though outside evaluators determined that it was effective.

One solution is to give tribes more flexibility in spending federal Indian program money. If AVCP would prefer to invest more money in Kinguliamta Ciunerkaat because that is the most important priority for its people, it should be able to do so. Unfortunately, the federal government puts too many strings on the funding it distributes to our tribes. I also favor a dedicated stream of federal funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to tribes and tribal organizations, which can be spent to address local wellness priorities.

We must also increase the level of public safety in our rural communities. I strongly support expansion of the Village Public Safety Officer Program and the Community Health Aide Practitioner (CHAP) program. I am encouraged by plans to create a new specialty within the CHAP program to train health aides in behavioral health issues. Schools must reinforce Native values to support the self esteem of Native students. They have a difficult mission: To build Native men and women endowed with a strong Native identity and to ensure that our Native students are prepared to enter the workforce.

History has been unkind to the spirit of Alaska Native peoples. Yet I am encouraged by what I heard at the learning session. Elders and youth are joining together, with tremendous courage and stress to face up to the suicide crisis. Mending broken hearts and broken spirits, one person at a time, will stem the suicide epidemic. As Alaska's senior senator I pledge to do my part to support these efforts in every way that I can.

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