Fighting Suicide in the Land of the Midnight Sun

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February 16, 2017 – There is no doubt that Alaska’s suicide rates are extremely high, especially among young people ages 15-24. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Alaska ranks number two in the nation, with 167 deaths by suicide. It also reports suicide as the number one leading cause of death for ages 15-24. As an itinerant school social worker within the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta of southwest rural Alaska, I responded to 13 suicides between January and May this past year.

Suicide prevention first became important in my life when my friend Cang Nicholas, a 22-year-old Yupik Alaskan native died by suicide in 2009. Family and friends in the village knew of his mental health condition but did not know how to address it or connect Cang to those able to help him. The closest hospital or clinic is 20 air miles from where we lived in Bethel, Alaska. The only way to the village, as with 56 villages in Alaska, is by air or boat.

My experience with suicide was limited. I had, however, been told that up until the very last moment of a person’s death by suicide, they likely feel ambivalent about dying: that, as one person put it, “the life side is stronger than death.” I saw firsthand that this was the case, as I witnessed Cang’s fight to stay alive. I also witnessed the pain and anger Cang’s family felt as we waited for the medevac flight from our regional hub to the village.

In the past six years since AFSP’s Alaska chapter was formed, I feel our greatest accomplishment has been its understanding the need to be culturally appropriate by addressing the Native population within their own language and traditions. Being given the opportunity for the last three years to present on behalf of AFSP at the Alaskan Federation for Native/Elder and Youth Convention, the largest gathering in the United States of any Native people, is a great accomplishment for both AFSP and the Alaska Chapter.

Some of my favorite moments with AFSP have included watching the Out of the Darkness Walks grow each year…connecting suicide loss survivors with each other and sharing their unique stories of healing and struggles…and AFSP’s annual Advocacy Forum in Washington, D.C., during which representatives from chapters across the country meet with our government legislators to “Be the Voice” and advocate for better public policies.

Paying more attention to suicide prevention and education is of the utmost importance to me, in Alaska and elsewhere. Our efforts encourage state and federal lawmakers to pass bills not only to improve mental health services but to educate schools, clinicians, and communities everywhere on the signs of suicide. We have urged lawmakers and military leaders to actively address suicide in our military veterans and service members. These are important steps we must take along our path to a world without suicide.

This year, AFSP celebrates 30 years of service to the suicide prevention movement. Learn more about our history here.