What do We Need to Do?


I’ve had permission to reprint this article for over a week but have simply been unable to hit “publish” .

 The rash of suicides this year, especially in rural Alaska, has knocked the wind out of me. I can’t seem to catch my breath… even now…

It bothers me a great deal that a shift in state management of  programs has effectively shut out small communities in dire need of  support for programs to combat suicide.

It bothers me that communities and agencies have to compete for funds to combat suicide. Doesn’t every one of our communities deserve  proper help?

It bothers me that the state has so woefully understaffed it’s own office that it cannot meet the workload it is charged with.

Every death is a blow to our future.

Every death is an indictment – a charge against our ability to meet the needs of citizens facing hopelessness and despair.

Suicide prevention is not going to fix  the problems small isolated communities have nor is it going to address the alienation of far too many young people in our state. It might buy us the firm ground necessary to solving some of these problems and it certainly saves us the precious resources our young people represent .

Many, many years ago I was a crewleader on a short term project which proposed to  impart job skills to young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It was a real learning experience for me on many, many levels.

Just getting to work was a real challenge to some … one young man was often late as his partner drank heavily and he was loathe to leave their children with her when she wasn’t sober… he spent a lot of time racing those kids off to various relatives morning after morning. He needed a kind of help the program couldn’t provide but a community resolved to cherish it’s young ones can.

The seemingly most successful participant , a young man who had had more than his share of kicks in the teeth, his mother died, his stepmother wouldn’t have another woman’s children in the house, successfully battled the lure of easy money available in selling drugs and stood up to the siren call of alcohol , to present himself day after day to learn and work and participate in molding his own future.

Or so we all thought…

He was uncharcteristically quiet the last few days of the job.

And the night the job ended, he went home and shot his brains out.

The aunt and uncle he lived with , the only solid ground in his short life,  said he was quiet when he came home and excused himself shortly after dinner.

They said he had been so proud of himself through the short 6 months he was working- that he was full of plans for his future.

Would that we all had understood that his quietness the last few days grew from a terrible fear that when the job ended so did his hopes to escape despair and build himself a strong future…

We need to be there when our young people are on shaky ground . We must be there.

And we must get honest about the damage our own despair and failures wreaks in their lives…


Report: State suicide-prevention grants to villages plummet

 Published on December 1st, 2010 4:34 pm


Alaska has one of the nation’s highest suicide rates but lacks the staff to apply for “numerous” grants that could help address the problem, according to a new report.

Also, the number of state grants going to Alaska villages — including in Western Alaska where suicide rates are highest — has fallen sharply in recent years. The communities often don’t have enough manpower to administer today’s awards, the report said.

Meanwhile, dozens of Alaska Natives lined up on Tuesday in Anchorage to outline the devastating reach of suicide in their regions.

They spoke to federal officials at an unprecedented “listening session” on the topic, one of several nationwide that stemmed from President Obama’s effort to enhance tribal-government relations. The hearing was part of a Bureau of Indian Affairs annual conference for Alaska tribes.

Amid heartbreaking stories of dead loved ones, they said prevention starts with parents in homes and villages. But they also called for more federal and state support to provide the counselors and programs to help break the cycle.

Not enough

Alaska’s in the throes of another wave of suicides, a plague unheard of until recent decades, some speakers said.

“Many children, mothers and grandmothers are crying today as we speak at this meeting,” said Kathleen Peters-Zurdy, executive director of the Tanana tribal government.

Six people took their lives in her Interior region in the last six weeks or so, she said.

Speakers blamed the deaths on long-recognized factors such as family violence, heavy drinking, rapid social change and historical trauma.

“We need to declare war” to stop the domestic violence, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicides, said James Sipary Sr.

The Toksook Bay man said he organized three prevention meetings for Nelson Island communities in Southwest Alaska after a string of suicides about five years ago.

In 2007, one of his sons hung himself, leaving an emotionally wounded family, Sipary said.

This year, at least 30 Alaskans took their lives between Sept. 19 and Oct. 19, a pace that outstrips Alaska’s already sad averages, said Chanda Aloysius, vice president of Behavioral Services at Anchorage-based Southcentral Foundation.

The tribally run health care system spends about $1 million annually on a suicide prevention program called Denaa Yeets’ — Athabascan for Our Breath of Life — with much of the money coming from federal grants.

“That’s a drop in the bucket compared to what’s needed,” she said.

The organization has churned out about 100 newly minted responders trained in prevention, intervention and crisis control, but they’re not enough to handle the demand in Southcentral’s Cook Inlet region and additional rural communities that also want help.

“We are over our head constantly with requests,” she said.

Additional grants could help Southcentral reach more villages by training new responders, blanketing statewide media with prevention ads and bringing more rural residents to Anchorage for an intense, weeklong healing program.

Future grants need to be more sustainable too, with awards lasting several years and not just one or two years as they often have in the past, Aloysius said.

Missed opportunity

The state, tribal groups and others are missing out on several federal and foundation grants, plus other funding sources, said the legislative research report . (The shorter version, without attachments and easier to download, is here .)

The report is based largely on a review of suicide-prevention grants awarded by the state since 2000.

The Statewide Suicide Prevention Council conducted that review and pulled other information for the report, said Kate Burkhart, the group’s executive director.

In a quick search of a federal online funding site, she found 20 unused suicide grants that the state, tribes and local entities are eligible for, the report said.

Other foundation grants not fully used in Alaska include the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Suicide Prevention Partnership, and the Johnson Family Foundation.

“The largest impediment to accessing these additional prevention resources is limited staffing levels at both the state and tribal levels,” the report said.

Applying for the grants can be demanding and complicated. Time-strapped state, tribal and city entities naturally focus on “providing direct services over seeking grants,” the report said.

Until this summer, the suicide prevention council had only part-time staff. Now they have one full-time employee. Also, the Division of Behavioral Health has one full time employee to work on suicide prevention.

“Therefore, there is currently limited capacity within the DBH or the Council for seeking and applying for, and then overseeing, additional federal or foundation grants,” the report found.

The total amount of federal grants going directly to tribes for suicide-prevention is unknown, in part because they are difficult to track.

The report notes that 17 large tribal organizations, such as Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. based in Bethel — which serves 56 villages — split $5 million over three years from the Methamphetamines Suicide Prevention Initiative.

The grant, offered by the Indian Health Service, may not continue next year, the report notes.

Another federal grant providing $1.5 million a year for youth-suicide prevention went to three organizations including Maniilaq, which provides social services to a dozen communities in the Kotzebue region.

Villages lose out on state awards

For years, Alaskans have killed themselves at a rate that’s roughly twice the national average.

In 2008, 167 Alaskans took their own lives, a record. The number dropped to 140 last year, still one of the busiest years in history.

The crisis is especially acute among Alaska Natives and rural regions. For nine years starting in 2000, rates in Western Alaska were six to seven times the national average.

But the report shows state-suicide prevention funding has dropped steeply in Western Alaska. Meanwhile, it’s risen in regions with the smallest suicide rates.

In 2003, 55 entities split nearly $800,000 state awards. Nearly all the recipients were tribes and villages. They used the money for such things as cultural camps to instill traditional values or suicide-prevention meetings that brought experts to their communities.

Fast forward to 2009. Twenty entities split $1.6 million.

The largest awards went to organizations based in Southcentral, Southeast and the Interior, regions with the state’s smallest suicide rates.

• $375,000 went to Central Peninsula General Hospital in Kenai.

• $280,000 to Big Brothers and Big Sisters, for the Fairbanks, Juneau and Sitka communities.

• $142,000 to the Juneau-based Association of Alaska School Boards.

• $132,000 to Mat-Su Health Services in Palmer and Wasilla.

• $120,000 to Fairbanks Counseling and Adoption received.

Two school districts in Western Alaska received awards. The Yupiit School District in Akiak, serving students in three Southwest Alaska villages, received $17,000. The Iditarod School District in McGrath, serving students in seven villages, received $44,000.

Only six of the 2009 state grants — between $7,000 and $45,000 — went to villages.

The change came about because of a move by the Department of Health and Social Services in 2003 that combined two divisions — mental health and drug and alcohol — into the Behavioral Health Division, the report notes.

It led to increased requirements for grant winners, including more planning, management and reporting.

Smaller entities didn’t have the manpower to compete for the awards, so grants increasingly went to larger regional Native organizations and other groups.

Resources misapplied

Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, requested the report after several young people, mostly males, took their lives in his Southwest Alaska District this year.

The findings are “sobering,” he said. It indicates that suicide-prevention money isn’t heading to areas that need it most.

“The input from people in my region and others is we have got to figure out how we can make a shift in the delivery of suicide prevention dollars and programs,” he said.

The report is a starting point, he said. He’ll work with legislators, the Division of Behavioral Health, federal agencies and others to determine how to increase the money for villages.

“There is a need for immediate triage so we’ll try to figure this out,” he said. “I look forward to working with anyone who’s interested in changing the delivery system.”

Burkhart said the council is currently reviewing how the change in funding has affected suicide rates. From there, the council can recommend whether the old system should be restored.

The recommendations should come in the group’s annual report, which should be published by the end of the year.

It’s important to note, she said, that small villages may have high rates after just one or two suicides, but the sheer numbers are higher in cities.

“People see Anchorage has lower rates, so they think it must not be as bad,” she said.

That’s not always the case.

The good news is that suicide awareness has reached a high point this year, she said. More than one listening session has been held on the topic and many people are openly talking about a subject that was once taboo.

Also, the state’s 11-member council is meeting regularly, including to remote areas, and more people are aware of crisis intervention programs like Careline (877-266-4357).

As for Tuesday’s listening session, it was the fourth in a series sponsored the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Indian Health Service, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The sessions will culminate in a national suicide prevention conference planned for early next year.

Speakers at the Anchorage session clearly wanted locally based solutions and sustainable and flexible funding mechanisms, said Michalyn Steele, counselor to Larry Echohawk, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs.

“That’s the message I will take back to Mr. Echohawk,” she said.

~Reprinted with permission from The Tundra Drums~


Kyle Hopkins at the ADN covered the same listening session and asked

Suicide in Alaska: What should be done?


Neighbors, what DO we need to do?

What can we do?

Published in: on December 12, 2010 at 7:31 am  Comments (7)  

7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you for doing this post!!

    One small thing that I feel we can do is keep it in the headlines. We can continue to highlight it, draw attention to the issues that are causes.

    Our entire state suffers when this happens, not just the individual village or area.

    For each person who actually commits suicide I am SURE there are many others who go down the path of hopelessness by using a drug or some other self destructive behavior. We can not survive with this happening.

    Each of these lives is important and Alaska must stand up and realize this.

    Thank you again….this is just too important to let fade, once again, into the night!!

  2. This is a sad topic but one that needs to be out in the open in order for people to start dealing with the reality.

    From my observations, a missing link is in the child rearing practices of our Native people. Children need structure and discipline in order to develop self-discipline. It’s about making choices; right choices nurture self-esteem and that combined with self-discipline will help grow children that are strong and full of pride.

  3. I’ve been thinking about this suicide issue for quite awhile because it’s becoming a common happening out here in Rural Alaska.

    My previous post pointed out child rearing practices of the Native people. I can address this view because I am a Native raised in a village in Rural Alaska. My views come from years of observation and some very personal experiences as well.

    Back before the westernized culture became common amongst the Native people – at least 100 years ago in most regions of our vast state; girls were married off young as is the custom still in several cultures in the world. Family units were stronger and more close knit back then as well. The elder women and men cared for, nurtured and taught the children as the adults worked to survive in the harsh environment. There were no unwanted children as adoption was common amongst those who could not have children. Children were valued as future providers and the elders made sure they were taught to survive.

    There seems to be a disconnection in the family unit these days. The children are not taught to be responsible – perhaps they do not understand what that means. Nor are the children taught to control themselves. The missing link seems to be in the Adolesence stage when the reproductive organs are developed and ready to kick in. The people don’t educate their kids about that nor do they supervise their activities close enough.

    As a result teen pregancies are becoming more and more common. Many teens are not ready to become parents – no income; no home. Instead the adults seem to tolerate this inappropriate breeding. They end up taking care of and raising the kids even though they are tired and many are not only tired but they are also poor. The poor live day by day. Children need to be nurtured day by day. On some days, nurturing children is not a priority. Then the children start feeling unwanted and in some cases unloved because there are more pressing problems than love and attention in the home. It seems to be a cycle.

    Young people need to know that having children is a big responsiblity and to go there before one is ready opens up a big, big hole if one has no way to provide for a child. I can’t understand why this concept is hard to understand.

  4. “cultural camps”, yeah, they became a big thing in the 90’s. The problem is taking away the responsibility from the people. Office workers with an 8-5 job shouldn’t be the one’s teaching culture. It’s a family responsibility. That’s why they don’t work except to give kids fun for a two week period. Cultural camps intent is to “instill traditional values” like it’s something that kids learn from going to camp. Yes, it’ll work if someone at home reinforces the values learned over and over again. Office workers are paid and this gets them out in the country to have fun with kids for a change. Culture is taught in the home. That’s it’s place in our society.

  5. We cannot change the society if we take away the responsibility from the people. Healthy choices start in the home. Having kids does not make a family – relationships do. If a relationship is not healthy, then the children are the ones who get hurt the most. I think having kids out of wed lock as teenagers and then dumping them onto parents seems to be a big factor in this cycle. Parents have to take an active role to bring healthy choices to their kids.

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