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Native leader says culture aids suicides
Anchorage Daily News


May 19, 2006

WASHINGTON - Alaska Native villages tend to suffer waves of suicide, with one tragedy triggering other similar deaths. William Martin, chairman of the state Suicide Prevention Council, told a U.S. Senate committee he thinks he knows why.

"I believe there is a copycat effect that is encouraged by how we talk about people after they kill themselves," said Martin, a Native leader from Juneau, Alaska.

At their funerals, no one speaks ill of the deceased, he said. "But there may be a person listening in the audience, a young person, who might think to themselves, is this all I need to do to gain respect from my family and my friends and my elders? And so it starts a compounding effect," he said.



Martin was one of several witnesses who told the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday that while the causes of Native American suicide are deeply embedded in the community, the tools for preventing suicide are in the community too.

Suicide rates are alarmingly high in some American Indian and Alaska Native communities. Alaska's statewide suicide rate is second only to Nevada's. And, as Martin told the committee, Alaska Natives commit suicide at two to three times the rate of non-Natives.

"As an Alaska Native leader, I've become convinced that my people must go back to the study and lessons of our ancestors, who lived in a time before alcohol was introduced to our communities," he said. "Suicide then was an unheard-of event, except in rare cases where one had grievously shamed his family or has caused despicable hurt (to) others."

And yet, he said, some aspects of the culture aren't helping. Traditional Native parents, he said, aren't given to overt, daily demonstrations of love for their children, he said.

"To change this culture, to change our ways, we need to find funds from outside our impoverished communities to support suicide prevent programs that assist our leaders and elders in changing the attitudes of our people," he said.

Dale Walker, who works on Native American suicide issues as a program director at the Oregon Health and Science University, said the problem is entwined with family violence, alcohol and drug use, and cultural disconnection. Community approaches are most effective when they tackle these broader issues, he said. Nearly all suicides involve alcohol or drug use, he said, and methamphetamine use is a growing problem. Meth, he said, causes psychosis and the loss of ability to reason, increasing the likelihood of suicides.

He and other experts praised a few of Alaska's new approaches to suicide prevention. The behavioral health aide program, patterned after Alaska's village health aide system, is an effective way to establish mental health services in distant communities, witnesses said.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she was happy that Maniilaq, the Native health service provider in the Kotzebue region, got a $1.2 million grant for "an incredible program where literally the whole family is taken out (of their remote villages) to be treated, for substance and other issues."

She suggested that the government needs to be more flexible in its grant criteria. When she talks to rural youths about how to improve their lives, they say they're bored and need something to do. Creating a community meeting place might help, she said, but the grants are geared for providing services.

She also wondered about the middle and high school students who give disturbing answers on anonymous surveys asking them about risky behaviors. How are those results used, she asked. Do the schools where one in five students report that they've contemplated suicide receive any extra attention? She didn't get an answer. One of the government witnesses said he'd look into it.

"I think when we ask our kids how they're feeling, what they're thinking, we need to be in a position to then respond, and not respond eight (or) nine months after the fact in some generic way," Murkowski said.


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Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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