In mid-October, thousands of Alaska Native people came together for the 49th annual Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) Convention at Anchorage’s Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center. It was a week to celebrate Alaska Native cultures, discuss and act on important issues and recognize outstanding Alaska Native individuals with the AFN President’s Awards.
Unfortunately, this year, the convention came to a tragic end. During the final hours, in what authorities believe was a suicide, a man jumped to his death from the third-floor balcony of the Dena’ina Center. The incident shocked attendees. But it also drew people together: People gathered to pray for strength and healing, they comforted each other and held a moment of silence. It was heartening to see how, in times of tragedy, our people look to one another for support and solace.
We may never know what drove this individual to take his own life. But we do know that he is not alone. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Alaska Native people between the ages of 15 and 34. The incident at the AFN Convention and others, like the recent rash of suicides in Hooper Bay, where four people killed themselves in just 16 days, remind us that this is an epidemic we must continue to battle.
What’s most tragic about suicide is that it’s a preventable cause of death—yet the factors that lead any one person to take his or her own life often leave the rest of us wondering what we might have done to help.
One thing we can do is talk–to those in need, and amongst ourselves to raise awareness and find solutions. Ignoring a problem is never the solution. We must talk openly about the disproportionate rates of suicide among our people and work together to find solutions. And we must speak up: If there is someone in your life you’re worried about, talk to them. You might feel afraid or nervous that you may say the wrong thing. But by talking to a friend or family member who needs help, you may save a life. Offering your support can help those in need to find resources and treatment.
We can also listen. “How many times was he trying to talk to someone?” asked suicide-prevention activist Barbara Franks after the death at the AFN Convention. We can play an active role in preventing suicide by educating ourselves about the signs and inviting those around us to open up about their problems, worries and fears. When a friend or family member desperate for help cries out, we can be the ear that hears them.
These recent suicides in the Alaska Native community demonstrate the need for more action. Fortunately,some steps are being taken to raise awareness, prevent suicides and promote healing. At the AFN Convention, Governor Bill Walker announced a new statewide initiative called Alaskans Changing Together, a network of community ambassadors that can act as a sort of “neighborhood watch” for suicide prevention. In response to recent events, state officials also met with tribal partners to review existing suicide prevention resources.
But we can’t leave it up to “someone else.” We must each do our part to prevent suicide. I encourage you to explore resources from the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council (www.dhss.alaska.gov/suicideprevention) or Stop Suicide Alaska (www.stopsuicidealaska.org). If you need help, let others know. And if you believe someone in your life is at risk of committing suicide, talk to them, listen to them, get help. Take action. We are all part of the solution.