Community-Driven Initiatives Aim to Stem Suicides Among Arctic Peoples

Guest Post by Brenda Patoine

Image courtesy of Stacy Rasmus

Image courtesy of Stacy Rasmus [click to see bigger]

In some of the most remote areas of Alaska, the suicide rate is seven times the national average, soaring to almost 18 times the U.S. average among Alaskan Native youth, where the suicide rate is 124 per 100,000 people aged 15-24, compared with 7 per 100,000 for that age group in the U.S. overall.

While it is not unusual for rural communities where people live in relative isolation to have higher-than-average rates of substance abuse, depression, and suicide, remote Arctic villages may represent a worst-case scenario. Far removed from population centers, these villages are located in some of the harshest environments in North America, are typically inaccessible by highways, and the closest hospitals are a plane ride away. Medical care is limited and mental health resources are typically nonexistent.

Suicides often occur in “clusters” in these remote villages. In Alakanuk, for example, a village of 550 people on the western coast of central Alaska, eight young people took their own lives— and dozens more attempted to—over a 16-month period in the 1980s, the equivalent of an entire high school class for that town. Alakanuk became somewhat infamous for its extraordinarily high rate of youth suicide after the Anchorage Daily News published a series about suicide and alcoholism among Alaska Natives called “People in Peril,” which won a Pulitzer Prize.

How to reverse this trend has been the subject of a series of interventional research studies aimed at building resilience in indigenous populations to prevent suicide and promote well-being. Researchers described two of these efforts in a recent webinar sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Building Resilience to Reduce Suicide in Arctic Communities.

The best solutions to preventing youth suicide lies not outside the villages, but within each community, said Stacy Rasmus, Ph.D., of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Lisa Wexler, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In the webcast, they described their federally funded efforts that tap into indigenous wisdom and cultural values to help reduce the astronomical rates of youth suicide among Alaskan Natives.

Rasmus is the principal investigator of a program in South-Central Alaska that works within the community of local villages to identify suicide-protective factors and develop culturally relevant tools to help young people gain confidence and resilience. Wexler heads up a similar-themed program in Northwest Alaska.

Both of the programs rely first and foremost on community direction and involvement.

“It takes a village, and all the organizations and people in it to prevent suicide,” said Wexler. “It’s a complicated problem that’s going to take a lot of different kinds of creative solutions. One size does not fit all.”

The core concept of each program is that change must happen from within: People in the village are the ones who are best able to prevent suicide and promote wellness. Scientific research can strengthen those efforts and provide ideas to community members to help that process along, but the most effective systems are those that are community-driven, relying on self-directed local control.

Rasmus reported data showing a “dose-response” effect of community-based tools and activities: the more activities that young people attended, and the closer to the model the activities stayed, the more resilient youth became to stress, alcohol use, and suicide.  Wexler’s program is still fairly new, but in the first six months they have trained 44 facilitators from 11 villages to implement the program in their own communities, and 9 of the villages have held 24 “learning circles,” as the community meetings are called, reaching more than 200 villagers.

The webinar will be available in full for viewing on the NIMH website by the end of June or so.

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