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The Spirit of the Circle: Bringing Suicide Prevention to a Native Alaskan Community

2 Jun 2022 — 4 min read

By Dustin Morris, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Alaska Area Director

Houses covered in snow in Alaska

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I grew up in Alaska's largest city, Anchorage. It isn't hard to find most modern conveniences such as fully stocked grocery and department stores, car dealerships, mechanics, and a handyperson who can fix or install just about anything. There is also the privilege of having the ability to connect with a behavioral or mental health provider just about any time you need one. But for many in Alaska, that is not the case. Like much of the U.S., many communities in Alaska (81%, to be exact) do not have enough mental health providers to serve residents, as suggested by federal guidelines.

Alaska is a vast and rugged place spreading more than 663,000 square miles, making it larger than Texas, California, and Montana combined – and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Alaska chapter has the privilege to cover it all.

Growing up in Alaska can present many challenges, making self-reliance and resilience a necessary part of life. Protective factors for mental wellbeing can quickly erode, making the long, harsh winters feel like an eternity, or the extreme daylight hours feel like sleep is impossible. But for many, these things feel comforting! They are a part of what makes Alaska feel like home.

More than half of the communities in Alaska can only be reached by air or sea, making it extremely difficult and expensive to connect with the more than 140 cities, villages, and townships spread across five major regions. Considering that many of the resources so many of us take for granted aren’t accessible to those in Native village communities, evaluating and updating AFSP programs to meet the unique needs of people living in Alaska – and making them culturally competent for the more than 230 Alaska Native tribes indigenous to the lands we occupy – has led to incredible relationships and partnerships.

When the Bristol Bay Native Association Reentry Coalition invited me to come to the city/village of Dillingham to participate in the week-long Bristol Bay Reentry Coalition Conference, in order to share AFSP's Talk Saves Lives education program, my heart almost exploded with joy. There are fewer than 2,500 people there, making Dillingham the 48th most populated city/village in the state. However, it is one of the regions most impacted by suicide. I had worked with several Dillingham residents via email, phone, and Zoom over the past two years to help with suicide prevention efforts, and now I would finally get to meet them in person.

Dillingham is more than 300 miles from Anchorage, and the only way to get there is by plane or by sea. Getting in and out of any village community requires patience as flights are often weather dependent. Flying the equivalent of L.A. to Phoenix, I arrived Sunday afternoon to receive a warm reception from the conference organizer, Tiffany Webb.

Tiffany works in the behavioral health department for the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation – a tribal health care operation managed by Bristol Bay's people. Her focus areas include opioid overdose prevention, prisoner reentry, and suicide prevention. Together with support from Tish Olsen, the youth liaison, they found me a place to stay, internet to use, and fed me more than once at their family dinner tables.

The two ladies showed me around town, filling me in on many historical sites and what has happened over generations. Before the Russians came to settle and occupy the land in 1818, the community was cared for by the region's indigenous people. Over the next two hundred years, the Yupik and other Alaska Native people experienced extreme hardships, including forced assimilation, systemic racism, disease, abuse, violence, and an accumulation of emotional and psychological pain resulting in historical traumas that continue to manifest today.

As a nonnative person occupying Native land, it was my privilege, honor, and responsibility to handle the trust afforded me with care. Rather than presenting in a traditional manner, i.e. someone standing at the front of a room sharing PowerPoint slides, participants were invited to sit in “talking circles” (common in tribal communities) around the presenters, with each person sharing their personal experiences and perspectives in reaction to the presentations. I quickly adapted my plans!

It is common practice amongst Alaska Native people to share who their grandparents are and where they are from, and who their parents are and where they are from, before sharing who you are and where you are from. It is also customary to introduce yourself in your native language if you speak it. I shared what we have learned about suicide from research, and what community members can do when concerned about themselves or others. There was an extremely emotional moment after I presented my initial remarks: after a long silence for several moments, a couple of participants began to cry and share their connections to the cause. Over the next several days, I shared further what we know about suicide prevention while giving space to hear the insights of those in the community.

It was a profound experience, and I learned just as much as I shared. Although Alaska Native people experience a disproportionate rate of suicide, it is not because they are Native. Instead, it is largely due to the experience of discrimination, historical traumas, inequities, displacement, institutional racism, systemic poverty, and our own bias contributing to the mental state of a group of people who continue to show relentless resilience. Recognizing the resilience of the people amid such disparities, plus working with them to develop services appropriate for the culture, are meaningful tasks for AFSP’s Alaska Chapter – and tasks we will meet respectfully. 

The experience of sitting in a circle and sharing information, personal experiences, and local resources –including traditional healing, spiritual, cultural beliefs, and the importance of identity – opened my eyes to the incredible opportunity this community has to recover, and the hope that exists in an entire group of people. In the spirit of the circle, there was more than one story shared. Through the stories, lessons were taught; and through the stories, healing began.

On more than one occasion, the word Quyana (KWiyAANAH) was used: “We are happy you came.” My heart could hardly take the appreciation I received. We danced together, ate together, prayed together, and shared an overwhelming connection that will inspire generations of hope and healing in Alaska and across the nation.

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