Tribe bringing awareness to suicide in community

In 2015, the State of Alaska’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 44.2 percent of Alaska Native youth felt so sad or hopeless every day for two weeks or more that they stopped doing some of their usual activities.

“This is really concerning,” Audra Gifford, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s suicide prevention program coordinator, said. “We know that this is one of the markers for a major depressive episode.”

The survey also found that nearly a quarter of Alaska Native teens had seriously considered suicide in the past year.

“Not maybe though about it,” Gifford said. “They are saying they seriously considered it, which is really alarming for us.

Currently, Alaska is at a 20 year high for suicide rates, Gifford said during a presentation to the Kenai Peninsula Board of Education last week.

Yinihugheltani, which means “one’s spirit,” is the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s suicide prevention program. Through the program, Gifford and her team hope to start a community wide conversation about an issue that is making a large impact on the Alaska community.

“(Suicide) is a leading cause of death for all Alaskans ages ten to 34,” Gifford said. “…We’re able to gather a little bit of information from the hospital and from January to September last year, they had 41 emergency room admissions due to suicidal ideation and or attempts. Eleven of those submissions were ages ten to 24.”

Through the Yinigheltani program, the Kenaitze Indian Tribe hopes to increase the knowledge and communication about suicide in the community, while decreasing any attached stigma.

“We went and did a community readiness assessment … to figure out where our community is at and if we’re ready to start addressing suicide,” Gifford said. “And we found that there is a vague awareness in terms of leadership and the community climate.”

To address this, Gifford and her team have been attending local community organization meetings, including the Board of Education, Soldotna City Council and Kenai City Council.

“We want you guys to be on the same page as us,” Gifford said.

Another major aspect of the program is their events, which run throughout the year to get people out of their house, to stay active and to openly talk about any issues that could be affecting them or have affected them in the past.

“It’s about getting people out of their houses, together, and promoting community,” Gifford said. “We really promote culture and connectedness, so we’ve been doing youth hikes and we’ve done classes where we partner the elders and the youth and they learn how to do traditional salmon smoking.”

The programs largest event, the Out of the Darkness Kenai Walk, is scheduled for September 10 at 1 p.m. The walk, which is a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, will take place along the beach off Cannery Road to raise awareness for suicide and mental health.

“This is a great program,” Board of Education member and Kenai City Council member Tim Navarre said at the board meeting. “We should be working to make known that we have it in our community.”

Fellow board member Lynn Hohl lauded the program’s previous efforts in Seward, with ‘The Winter Bear.’ The play, which was performed throughout the Kenai Peninsula, tells the story of a troubled Alaska Native teen who uses his traditional culture to fight off his despair and suicidal thoughts.

“The Seward community really appreciated ‘The Winter Bear’ performance when it came to Seward,” Hohl said.

Gifford also explained that the tribe offers a ‘postvention plan’ that “wraps around” and supports a family that has suffered due to a suicide. She also pointed to local resources, including the Alaska Care Line, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, Central Peninsula Hospital or the local police department.

“And of course, you can call our tribe,” Gifford said.

Reach Kat Sorensen at kat.sorensen@peninsulaclarion.com

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