Our Future…

After brushes with suicide on campaign trail, lawmaker shifts focus

Published on August 26th, 2010


reprinted with permission from the TUNDRA DRUMS

In his short time in office, Rep. Neal Foster has focused on bringing basic improvements to his Western Alaska district. Things like roads, schools and airstrips.

But while barnstorming recently in villages, he nearly stumbled upon one suicide and witnessed the tragic aftermath of another.

Now, he plans to step up the fight against that scourge.

Foster, appointed in November to fill the seat long held by his father, who died after a heart attack, will likely get the chance. Foster won the Democratic nod in Tuesday’s primary, beating out Vincent Beans of Mountain village. He has no opponent for the November election.

Suicides have long been a problem in Alaska, with the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta experiencing particularly high rates.

A streak of suicides earlier this summer made headlines in that region. During a six-week stretch beginning in May, nine people killed themselves. Most were males. All were teens or in their early 20s.

Six of those came in Foster’s district, in the section that includes the Lower Yukon River and nearby Bering Sea coast.

Since early July, reports of suicides in the region stopped. But a “slew” of attempts and suicidal threats have continued, said Perry Barr, an Alaska State Trooper in the hub city of Bethel.

Then came Saturday.

Foster, who is from Nome, was walking through Hooper Bay, hanging fliers and putting campaign berry buckets on door steps. He overheard screaming from a house whose door he just knocked on. He thought it was kids.

A village public safety officer showed up. Then a trooper.

After learning there’d been a suicide, Foster wanted to offer help. Someone let him enter the house.

Inside, relatives and a pastor kneeled around a teenage boy who lay dead on the floor. The boy, whom Foster heard was 14, had hung himself.

“They had put his hands on his chest, kind of crossed and they were weeping,” Foster said.

After the mother went outside, Foster tried talking to the mother.

“She was outside kicking dirt, yelling, “What did I do? Was it my fault?’ ” he said.

“I went to her and wanted to say, ‘Is there anything we can do?’ But when I got to her I couldn’t say anything.

I had a hand over my heart and got glassy-eyed, so I just hugged her. It was beyond words.”

He gathered himself.

“I gave her my card and said, ‘I am so sorry for your loss. If there’s anything I can do, please give me a call.’ ”

Suicide in St. Michael

On Monday two days later, Foster flew his small plane to knock on doors in St. Michael, a village of 450 some 100 miles northeast of Hooper Bay. It sits on Norton Sound near the Y-K Delta.

In one house where women greeted Foster quietly, someone said there’d been a tragedy.

Outside, Foster learned from the mayor — who accompanied him around town — that the homeowner’s son had shot himself half an hour earlier in a different house.

At the general store a bit later, a teacher comforted children. They were the man’s sons, Foster was told.

Foster, after learning of each suicide, called John Moller, the state’s rural affairs advisor. He wanted to let the governor know what he’d witnessed.

Foster’s cell phone didn’t accept phone calls in the village, but the governor texted Foster both times. He said his prayers are with the families and to please let him know if the state can offer help, Foster said.

Foster said:

“Mostly, I wanted him to let him know this is a big issue and I’m seeing it firsthand, and something needs to be done. I think he already understands that, but I just wanted to let him know how real it was.”

A couple weeks earlier, the state sent Moller to a meeting in Mountain Village on the region’s suicides. A 17-year-old had shot himself there on July 9.

Foster, who also attended, heard that villages need more behavioral therapists who travel, in addition to local ones. Those struggling with depression might feel more comfortable meeting a visiting therapist, rather than a resident who might gossip.

People also blamed drinking. Someone suggested that traveling village police might reduce bootlegging — alcohol is often outlawed in villages — since local police may not investigate family or friends who sell.

People also wanted more programs for youth that include traditional activities, such as Native dancing or camps to learn to fish and hunt.

On a trip to Emmonak, Foster said he met with Nick Tucker, who said he rescued his teenage daughter after she tried hanging herself with a wire in July.

Tucker told Foster that families and communities need to do more. But Tucker believes the state must provide more rural police to fight bootlegging.

Foster said he plans to look into the ideas and spend more as a lawmaker addressing the epidemic.

While campaigning in Hooper Bay, a responder for the state troopers told Foster that bodies of suicide victims are often flown to Anchorage for autopsy quickly, without giving the family much time to accept the death, Foster said.

The responder asked Foster to see whether some of the analysis and blood work for the autopsy could be done in the village.

Just a few hours after the suicide in that village of 1,200, the trooper airplane left with the boy’s body.

After lifting into the air, the pilot circled back, flying over the airstrip and dipping the plane’s wings as the family waved goodbye.


We have had our eyes on the state primary with our minds on our future.

These young people should have been part of that future.

I ask that we honor their short time with us by planning for a future which gives  hope, purpose, and place to all citizens.

My prayers are with their families and my hopes are with Mr Foster and all who have taken up the work to meet this problem head on.

Published in: on September 1, 2010 at 8:27 pm  Comments (5)  

5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hospice & Home Care of Juneau is sponsoring a workshop with Dr. Bob Baugher on Suicide Intervention and Coping with Suicide Loss on Sept. 8 at Centennial Hall from 9:00-11:30 am. This workshop is open to the public and free of charge. KTOO/360 North will be filming this presentation through sponsorship of Alaska Dep’t of Health & Social Services, Behavioral Health. This workshop will be aired on KTOO/360 North on Sept. 12 (I think).

    Dr. Baugher teaches at Highline Community College in the Seattle area and has written several books, lectured internationally and conducted many workshops on loss and grief throughout the United States.

    Suicide, whether by children or adults, is a serious problem. It is sad there are many that feel so hopeless, especially in rural Alaska. This problem is not just in rural Alaska; it is a problem throughout our state. Unfortunately, when a suicide happens in small isolated communities or regions it impacts a greater number of people.

    Please, for those considering suicide contact help. The State of Alaska and Native health services have suicide prevention phone lines. No matter how bad things seem today or have been, there is always a chance for things to change and improve. Be a part of that.

    For those who are survivors of suicide (the left behind loved ones, those who did not succeed), acknowledge your loss and grief. You are a survivor! Vow to break the cycle. Seek help.

    Thank you too for the information you sent me personally which I’m sharing here:

    Understanding the Suicidal Person
    Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
    Department of Psychology
    Highline Community College
    Des Moines, Washington
    Clues (some or all may indicate suicidal thoughts)
    1. Depression from which the person sees no relief = a sense of hopelessness
    2. Statements such as, “I won’t be around.” “I just can’t take it anymore.” “I can’t go on.”
    3. Getting rid of personal belongings
    4. Statements of self-hatred—“I hate myself”
    5. Threats—“I’m going to kill myself.”
    6. Acquiring a method: firearm, rope, pills
    7. Withdrawal into oneself—not going out; not responding to phone calls
    8. Vague physical complaints—visiting one’s doctor
    9. Preparing to leave—putting one’s house in order, quitting one’s job, church, school
    Emotional and thought Patterns of People Contemplating Suicide
    1. Ambivalence—part of them wants to die and part wants to live
    2. They are in emotional and/or physical pain from which they see no escape—except by suicide
    3. Their intent may be to use suicide to punish other people in their life
    4. They may wish to be a martyr.
    5. They may try to use suicide to punish themselves for an imagined or real transgression.
    6. They believe that their unbearable situation will continue at the same level or get worse.
    7. Suicide is sometimes viewed as sleep—“I just want to go to sleep for a long time.”
    Steps in Intervention
    1. When you suspect that a person is depressed and hopeless or when you detect any of the clues
    listed above, ask, “Are you thinking of suicide?”
    Asking this question will not put an idea into a person’s head.
    Do not be afraid to ask this question.
    2. Once you have discovered that a person is suicidal, the very next step is to begin “Suicide CPR”
    C = Current plan—“What method are you thinking about using?”
    “Where is the method?”
    P = Prior behavior-“Have you ever tried to kill yourself before?”
    “If so, “What method did you try?”
    “Do you know anyone who has attempted or committed suicide?”
    (People with a prior attempt or who know someone who attempted are at higher risk.)
    R = Resources—–“Who else (besides me) can help you get through this: a brother, sister,
    parent, friend, partner?”
    3. Find ways to immediately put distance between the person and their method.
    4. The worst thing you can do with a suicidal person is to dare them.
    5. Don’t try to solve all the person’s problems in one day. Suicide is serious. Get professional help.
    6. As you talk with the person, you have two important goals.
    Be a good listener—let the person talk about their problems
    Be active in moving the person toward finding reasons to live and resources to help
    7. Find ways to set up long-term follow-up
    8. Give the person the phone number to the nearest crisis center.
    9. Do not leave the person until
    Additional help is obtained
    A contract (oral or written) has been made in which the suicidal person has promised not to
    use the method and a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist has been contacted.
    1. D = S x P
    2. Types: Clinical, Chronic, Reactive, Anxiety-related
    3. Symptoms
    a. Sleep Problems
    b. Fatigue
    c. Hopelessness
    d. Eating problems
    e. Disrupts ADLs
    f. Apathetic
    g. Rejects social support
    h. Suicidal Ideation and/or pain induction
    It’s Not Only Depression that Kills:
    Additional Suicide Warning Signs
    From American Association of Suicidology
    (Note: the memory device for this list is: IS PATH WARM)
    Ideation: Thoughts of suicide expressed, threatened, written or otherwise hinted at
    by efforts to find means to suicide
    Substance Use: Increased or excessive alcohol or drug use
    Purposelessness: Seeing no reason for living or having no sense of meaning or purpose in life
    Anxiety: Feeling anxious, agitated, or unable to sleep (or sleeping all the time)
    Trapped: Feeling trapped, like there’s no way out
    Hopelessness: Feeling hopeless about self, others, the future
    Withdrawal: Withdrawing from family, friends, usual activities, society
    Anger: Feeling rage or uncontrolled anger; seeking revenge for perceived wrongs
    Reckless: Acting without regard for consequences, excessively risky behavior,
    seemingly without thinking
    Mood Changes: Experiencing dramatic changes in mood. Labile mood.
    Suggestions for Coping with the Suicide of a Loved One
    Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
    Department of Psychology
    Highline Community College
    Des Moines, Washington
    1. Learn about common grief reactions to a suicide
    2. Attend a support group
    3. Get ready for holidays and other important dates
    4. Talk to a supportive person
    5. Journal
    6. Write out the current biggest problem—brainstorming all possible ways of coping
    7. List expectations
    8. Music
    9. Mantra: “As terrible as this feels right now, it won’t be this bad forever.”
    10. Physical Care
    11. Crying/Laughing
    12. Distract: Reading, Video, Internet, Sports,
    13. Helping
    14. Forgiving oneself
    15. Relaxation
    16. Accept feelings
    17. Play with an animal companion
    18. Make a list of trusted people to contact
    19. Teach people to be good listeners
    20. Crisis line: Alaska Care Line 1-877-266-4357 (Help)
    SEARHC Care Line 1-877-294-0074
    21. Spiritual help
    22. Eat healthy
    23. Ask: What is the worst that can happen? And, then what?
    24. Listen to self-talk
    25. Find ways to put distance between self and temptations
    26. Interview a survivor who appears to cope effectively
    27. Talk back to negative thoughts: Watch use of black/white thinking: always, never, everybody, nobody, totally
    28. Thought-Stopping
    29. Time management
    30. Avoid
    a. Taking it out on others
    b. Keeping all feelings inside
    c. Refusing to believe that it happened
    d. Drinking to forget
    e. Eating more to forget
    f. Taking drugs to forget
    g. Smoking more to forget
    h. Trying to be perfect
    i. Binging and purging
    j. Cutting on yourself
    k. People who bring your down
    l. Engaging in risky, life-threatening, or suicidal behavior
    m. Negative self-talk—calling yourself names, putting yourself down
    n. Sleep cheating
    30. Mantra (again): “As terrible as this feels right now, it won’t be this bad forever.”
    31. Take it: One day at a time

  3. Please check the dates and times this will be shown in your area.

    “A 360 North special presentation
    Suicide Intervention and Coping with Suicide Loss
    By Dr. Bob Baugher
    Department of Psychology
    Highline Community College – Des Moines, WA
    Presented by: Hospice & Home Care of Juneau
    With Funding by Alaska Department of Health and Social Services
    Program includes in-depth discussions on the following topics:
    Clues (some or all may indicate suicidal thoughts), Emotional and thought Patterns of People Contemplating Suicide ,Steps in Intervention, Depression, Additional Suicide Warning Signs and Suggestions for Coping with the Suicide of a Loved One
    Sunday Sept. 12th at 8:00 PM
    And Monday morning Sept. 13th at 11:00AM
    Where to watch 360 North
    GCI cable Channel 18 state wide
    GCI cable Channel 15 in Juneau
    KAKM-DT Anchorage 7.3
    KUAC-DT Fairbanks 9.4
    KTOO-DT Juneau 3.2
    For broadcast information contact:
    Jim Mahan
    KTOO Productions/360 North
    360 Egan
    Juneau, Alaska 99801

  4. http://www.uaf.edu/aurora/archives/fall-2009/canhr/
    Go and read carefully neighbors.
    We have much to do to ensure a future for ourselves and our children.

  5. Thanks Pi for posting this.

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