For Alaska Native Youth, a Tradition-Rooted Program Teaches Resilience | OZY

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Suicide rates among American Indian and Alaska Native teens are high, but community-based programs are making a difference.

In Alaska, the weather in remote regions, such as Emmonak, a Yukon settlement by the Bering Sea, is harsh. But the headlines can be harsher: Suicide. Alcohol misuse. The Yup’ik tribe have lived in this tundra for over 10,000 years, but in recent decades, members of the Native community have struggled with significant mental health challenges.

They’re not the only ones. A 2019 report co-authored by Well Being Trust and Trust for America’s Health found adolescent suicide across the United States has increased a staggering 87 percent from a decade ago. But it doesn’t affect all young people equally.

American Indian and Alaska Native teens die by suicide at a rate 60 percent above the national average.

Conversations about that staggering statistic often focus on immediate causes and fail to take in the long view, says Dr. Stacy Rasmus, the director of the Center for Alaska Native Health Research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “Very often, this conversation starts with the problems, the trauma, the hardship, the adversity,” Rasmus explains. “The story truly begins with: What were Alaska Native and Yup’ik communities like before all of this? Suicide among young people is new and was unheard of historically when communities were living their traditional ways of life.” 

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Source Center for Alaska Native Health Research

Rasmus, along with Yup’ik elders, is committed to “flipping the narrative.” Native community leaders and researchers in Alaska developed the Qungasvik program based on Yup’ik traditions to help teens find strength and celebrate life. “We need to help them recognize that help is within their communities and help is available for people who want to ask,” says Billy Charles, a tribal member from Emmonak and a research co-investigator at Alaska Native Health Research. “This work also provides more tools to focus on the bigger things that they want to do with their lives.” 

Community gatherings, led by tribal elders, invite youth to learn about their heritage — to prepare to overcome obstacles in their future.

In the Yup’ik language, qungasvik is a container used to carry tools for survival, such as sewing kits or hunting equipment. In its modern iteration, the Qungasvik is an intervention toolbox that shares qanruyutet — teachings or advice — on how to live a good life and care for one’s mental health, including building strong relationships and making safe decisions around alcohol. Community gatherings, led by tribal elders, invite youth to learn about their heritage — to prepare to overcome obstacles in their future. Qungasvik includes hands-on learning, like smelt fishing and basket weaving, followed by discussion and storytelling that touches on problem solving, resilience and the power of connection.

“When you give someone something to do with their hands, their mind is open,” Charles says, adding that each community can adapt the qungasvik to their own needs, heritage and strengths. “So while they’re making tools, they are talking about those protective actions like love, kindness and respect.” 

Finding ways to help young people talk about mental health is crucial, says Benjamin F. Miller, Well Being Trust’s chief strategy officer. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34 nationwide, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And part of fighting that is helping teens and adults know how to respond when a friend or colleague says they’re struggling.

“That, to me, is where we’re failing as a nation,” Miller says. “We forgot how to talk to each other about really hard things.” 

And this approach — of looking beyond the headlines and focusing on ways to truly connect  — is being explored throughout Alaskan culture. For example, the Anchorage-based Mental Health Advocacy Through Storytelling program gives youth an outlet to share their stories about mental health and to break down stigma. 

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A community gathering making Akutak (a type of ice cream) the traditional way, mixing seal oil and reindeer fat with frozen tundra berries.

Source Center for Alaska Native Health Research

Zoe Kaplan, 18, a senior at West Anchorage High School, helps facilitate the program. Participants include Native and non-Native teens, who speak about their experiences with mental health challenges. Participants meet 10 times over a 20-week period, with the first five meetings focused on learning about mental health advocacy and the next five focused on helping teens draft their stories to share them in front of the group. Kaplan says she’s heard storytellers open up about thoughts of suicide, leaving an abusive partner or grappling with a parent’s infidelity and divorce. 

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Yup’ik young men heading out on the first seal hunt of the season — a traditional rite of passage in the community.

Source Center for Alaska Native Health Research

At the end of the session, storytellers can share their story with a wider audience at an open-mic event. Kaplan opened up about living with chronic illness, and found that it was “honestly such a freeing feeling.” 

“Seeing my classmates in the audience was at first very like, ‘Oh my God, I’m about to tell my story to 100 people who know me outside of this context,’” she says. “But then, once I told my story, I was like, ‘Now people know.’ Now it’s out there. I can talk about it.” Since then, she says that some of her classmates have opened up about dealing with similar feelings and asked her where they can find help.

That’s because it’s all about starting the conversation, Miller says. “In order for us to really bring about a cultural change for mental health in this country, it’s going to have to start with the language. And the best way to get language across is through stories.”