SITKA — Mt. Edgecumbe senior Tessa Baldwin knows all too well about the staggering suicide rate among Alaska Natives.
Baldwin, a 17-year-old from Kotzebue, was 5 when she saw her uncle take his own life. She grew up around the epidemic, which hit home for her again last year when she lost her boyfriend to suicide.
“It’s just always been around me,” Baldwin said on a recent afternoon, seated next to the basketball court at B.J. McGillis Gymnasium. “It’s always been an option.”
Baldwin first went public with her story last April, when she addressed about 500 students at an Alaska Association of Student Governments conference in Cordova. She’s now spoken at three Alaska high schools and has launched “Hope4Alaska,” a nonprofit that is focused on suicide prevention.
The nascent organization was recently buoyed by a $25,000 award from Alaska Marketplace, a competition sponsored by the Alaska Federation of Natives.
Baldwin’s plan to enlist students around the state to increase suicide-prevention activities at Alaska high schools and to push for mandatory prevention training for teachers got the highest possible monetary award from AFN, competing in a category against businesses from around the state.
During her trip to Anchorage for AFN, Baldwin also testified at a U.S. Senate field hearing on Alaska Native suicide. With Sen. Lisa Murkowski presiding, Baldwin, who by age 10 knew six people who had taken their own lives, once again told her harrowing personal story of dealing with the fallout of suicide in Alaska.
The statistics surrounding Native suicide in Alaska are troubling. Figures cited by the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council — Baldwin is a youth representative — indicate Alaska Native men, between the ages of 15-24, had the highest rate of suicide among any demographic in the country from 2000 to 2009. And a recent federal study showed suicide was the second leading cause of death for Alaska Natives and American Indians ages 10 to 24.
Baldwin is aware of those statistics and is using her personal story to encourage other Alaska students to come forward and discuss the issue.
Baldwin’s work on suicide prevention began through the Alaska Association of Student Governments, which meets twice a year for conferences.
Four years ago, a student on the AASG executive board from Monroe Catholic lost a friend to suicide, and the organization started looking at the issue.
But the effort has picked up momentum is the last 18 months, thanks in large part to Baldwin.
Baldwin, a member of the student government at Edgecumbe since her sophomore year, first told her story to Carol Waters, the AASG executive director.
Waters recalled sitting in an Anchorage coffee shop with Baldwin and Barb Franks, who runs the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s suicide prevention program, in December 2010. The three were brainstorming about how to bolster AASG’s suicide prevention efforts. The meeting lasted an entire afternoon, and Baldwin was tasked with typing up the minutes.
Instead, she described her experiences with suicide in an email to Waters.
“I think it had always been inside, but she made the connection right there,” Waters said.
After sending the email, Baldwin started working with Franks, who lost a son to suicide, on the speech she ultimately gave last April in Cordova.
Waters said Baldwin received a rare standing ovation from the AASG crowd.
For Baldwin, it was a major step in her healing process.
After the speech, AASG passed resolutions supporting mandatory suicide prevention training for teachers, and another that said the group would lobby the state government for funds to support the effort.
Last summer, AASG was recognized by the National Association of Secondary School Principals for its work on suicide prevention.
Baldwin, the senior class president at MEHS, has spoken at two Fairbanks-area schools this fall and made a trip to Barrow High to tell her story.
She’s booked to visit Ketchikan, Klawock, Bethel and Cordova in coming weeks, and 18 other schools have requested her presence. The AFN money will help pay for her travel costs, and other efforts to get the word out about suicide prevention.
Waters said having a student take the lead on suicide prevention issues is invaluable.
She argued that suicide prevention efforts in the state are not underfunded. The problem, she said, is often how the message is delivered. Bureaucrats reeling off statistics can only do so much, and a spokeswoman like Baldwin can truly engage students, Water said.
“They have to hear the stories,” she said. “Every kid in the state is affected, whether it’s been a family member or someone they know.”
In addition to her scheduled trips around the state, Baldwin plans to tell her story during a December assembly at Mt. Edgecumbe. She still gets emotional when describing how suicide has affected her life, but said she’s generally not nervous anymore because the issue has become her passion.
But the talk at MEHS in front of her friends and classmates could be a bit different.
“I get nervous thinking about that,” she said.
A cheerleader who also serves as president of the National Honor Society at MEHS, Baldwin applied early to Dartmouth and is trying to figure out how Hope4Alaska can carry on suicide prevention work when she leaves the state for college.