Op - Ed: The road ahead: Reflections on Native suicide summits
I took the opportunity of AFN this year to convene a field hearing through the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, with the intent of taking our dialogue on Native youth suicide to a next phase, one of informed national involvement. We in Alaska have been living with the harrowing reality for years, but I wanted to bring a Senate spotlight to our soil to fully bring about movement to fight this epidemic. And the focus lasted beyond that single event. Following the hearing, First Alaskans Institute helped facilitate a community visioning dialogue that focused on youth leadership development -- to empower the brothers, sisters and friends of our most vulnerable Alaskans. The following Tuesday, I spoke at the Alaska Area Action Summit for Suicide Prevention, a group that included many of the same dedicated people who participated in the field hearing.
Now that Elders and Youth, AFN, and the Suicide Action Summit have concluded, the time for difficult, honest work has begun. We must harvest positive results from the troubling words and anecdotes shared. But the path ahead has tangible, attainable goals we can begin working towards.
My field hearing generated a number of concrete steps that are worth pursuing. Evon Peter, former Chief of the Neetsaii Gwich’in, now director of the Maniilaq Youth Leadership program, suggested we need to be more invested in healing, wellness and leadership development initiatives. Tessa Baldwin, a senior at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, who founded Hope4Alaska, suggested we create a database of statewide events, programs and groups, to help people learn about efforts that are showing signs of success.
I'm taking all of these suggestions back to my D.C. colleagues, to build greater awareness among them, but Alaskans know the important answers to our state's questions don't emanate from Capitol Hill. We must stand side-by-side and continue these conversations at the state and local level. People must talk, and people must listen. The state and federal governments should support our Native tribes and communities in this effort.
It is imperative that we work together because for the many young people in our communities, the issues that were discussed over the past week are still at the forefront of their minds. Issues persist that we must continue to address head on: sexual abuse, alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, and historical trauma. We can no longer afford to just talk about these issues in a vacuum and hope they will disappear. Talking about the problem was a critical first step to share our stories, but the next step is follow-through and action. In short: We must engage.
I heard stories of struggle and inspiration from the truly brave young people who testified at my hearing. There was an intensity and strength in their words as they spoke to the audience and their emotions were conveyed via radio and TV into living rooms statewide. Those courageous young people are harnessing their own power and creating the change they want to see in their communities and in the future. They deserve our support and our help as they develop leadership and prevention programs, which are already showing signs of success. Through their tears and painful stories, I heard their hope.
The issue of youth suicide has always been of the utmost importance to me, and I will continue to do all that I can to ensure that the federal government helps sustain the efforts to battle Native youth suicide. Suicide is not a part of life that we must accept as normal. Youth suicide is not a traditional part of Native cultures, and we must engage all of our efforts to ending the epidemic. We need to talk about the things that we find most difficult if we are to successfully address the underlying root causes of these tremendously challenging problems. We need to end the staggering rates of sexual abuse that we see in our homes and communities. We need to strengthen our families and model healthy, sober lifestyles for our children, so that they have role models to look up to and emulate.
.Beyond the initiatives being put in motion, there is a simple next phase that we can all participate in -- whether from St. Mary's or Anchorage -- and it is one that doesn't require any federal involvement or funding. We have broken the first wall of communication; we have courageously opened our mouths and told our painful stories to one another. But the next step? Listen. And respond. Both Evon Peter and Tessa Baldwin conveyed the need for listening to one another and sharing difficult feelings to build a community – whether geographically or using social media – to unite our resolve against this unnecessary enemy. As we discuss the economic troubles facing the nation, it's worth remembering that it doesn't cost a dime to say: "I hear you," "I love you," or "you matter." We can all draw a straight line from hopelessness to suicide. And reaching out to one another on a personal basis -- letting that person feel heard and less alone -- can cut through the hopelessness. And may do more to save a life than a dozen federal programs combined.