Feds, Alaska Natives team up for suicide prevention summit

Evon Peter, director of wellness program for the Maniilaq Association, speaks at an Alaska Natives suicide prevention summit Tuesday in Anchorage. The three-day event that kicked off Tuesday will highlight information gathered at 10 federal "listening sessions" held across the country in the past year to address the disproportionate rate of suicide among Alaska Natives and American Indians, most notably among the young.

ANCHORAGE — Suicide remains an epidemic among Alaska Natives, and no single entity alone can solve such a complex problem with so many contributing factors, participants said Tuesday at a suicide prevention summit sponsored by federal agencies and tribal organizations.

The three-day Anchorage event kicked off Tuesday. It will highlight information gathered at 10 federal “listening sessions” held across the country in the past year to address the disproportionate rate of suicide among Alaska Natives and American Indians, most notably among the young.

The rate of suicides among indigenous Americans between the ages of 15 and 29 was nearly double the national rate in 2006-2007, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alaska’s numbers are even more drastic. In the same two-year period, there were a total of 284 suicides in the state, according to the federal data. Alaska Natives, which make up less than 18 percent of the state’s estimated population then of 680,000, accounted for 96 of those deaths.

“Part of what we gathered from the listening sessions was that we really needed to involve and demonstrate that everyone has a role to play in suicide prevention,” Dr. Rose Weahkee with the Indian Health Service said during a brief break. “Communities need to involve the entire community when they’re trying to address suicide prevention, across disciplines from tribal leaders to community leaders to hearing the youth voice.”

A four-day summit examining suicide in Indian Country took place in Scottsdale, Ariz., in August.

Participating agencies in the effort include the Indian Health Service, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

At the Anchorage summit, participants broke out into workshops on several topics including traditional practice, substance abuse, wellness and research.

Speakers at the research workshop led the crowd in a discussion of contributing factors to suicide such as alcohol abuse, sexual abuse, lack of self-esteem, poverty and deprivation of Native culture and traditions.

The speakers and audience also spoke of promising solutions including culture camps to teach young people about subsistence hunting and fishing, traditional arts like beading and weaving and elevated awareness of painful experiences of the past. One audience member spoke of a program to install gun safes in homes.

Evon Peter, who is Gwich’in, was among the speakers at the workshop. He works as the director of wellness program for the Maniilaq Association, a regional nonprofit Native health care provider and is involved with the Northwest Alaska Wellness Initiative, a suicide-prevention partnership between tribal service providers and universities.

Peter said his work is driven by a need to help others deal with some of the same factors and pain that can lead to someone taking their own life.

“Every single Alaska Native person has been touched by suicide in some way or another,” he said.

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