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KNBA NEWS - Legislative office lease lawsuit to go forward; NW Alaska suicide rate dips

8/20/15

Controversial Anchorage Legislative Office lease subject of lawsuit

By The Associated Press

Discovery will begin in a lawsuit challenging the Legislature's $4 million lease of Anchorage office space. The Alaska Dispatch News reports a judge has decided not to dismiss the case as the state requested. An attorney sued earlier this year claiming renovations damaged a wall that the Legislative Information Office shares with a building he owns.

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Community-based suicide prevention solutions show promise

By Joaqlin Estus, KNBA - Anchorage

In Northwest Alaska, communities that are coming up with local solutions to domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and other community issues are hoping a recent dip in suicide numbers is the start of a long-term trend.

Since the late 1990s Massachusetts University professor Lisa Wexler has been researching suicide among indigenous people in Alaska and other parts of the world. She said the western approach to suicide prevention has been to identify individuals with mental health issues and to provide them with professional mental health treatment.

But she said studies on indigenous people in Alaska, Canada, Australia, and northern Norway show that broader community political, economic, and historical forces underlie suicide trends. She said a 1998 Chandler and Luh-LAND study showed that stronger traditional cultures and greater self-governance in areas such as health care and land management lead to lower local suicide rates.

“When communities had all seven of these factors intact, when they were in control of their law enforcement and their schools were serving their people. And there were leaders, that were tribal leaders that were in power,” said Wexler. “When they had these seven factors in place, they had very low suicide rates, in fact, suicide rates that were at least on par with the dominant culture. And communities that had less of these cultural continuity factors, had much higher suicide rates

Maniilaq has the nation's longest-running database on suicide, which Wexler and Maniilaq have used to evaluate the effectiveness of different approaches. The numbers show therapy and public education on intervention techniques might have kept the suicide rate from going up, but were not bringing the numbers down.

Wellness Program Manager Roberta Moto said Maniilaq’s approach since 2009 has been to empower local natural leaders, who may be a hunter, minister or an elder – the people others turn to when bad things happen:

“Our suicide prevention program is based on self-determination and the thought that people know their villages, know what will work in their villages,” said Moto. “So we try to empower them to come up with solutions for suicide prevention that will work in their villages.

Maniilaq has 12 recovery support leaders (RSL) and five youth leaders working with the 12 villages in the region. Sylvia Sheldon said she and the other RSLs also incorporate Inupiaq cultural traditions;

“When we got together, I started getting creative with our meetings. So we had skin sewing,” said Sheldon. “When they got busy with skin sewing, it was easier to open up and talk about some of the stuff people were battling while they were busy doing stuff.”

Sheldon said people learn traditional skills and are more willing to talk during get-togethers for fish harvesting and processing, berry picking, or hunting.

“We try to acknowledge that we're here together to support each other, to grow together, to heal and get through this,” said Sheldon. “So we try to talk about that. But sometimes we just shine the light on their strengths and let them get a boost in their confidence.” 

There were 45 suicides per year in the region between 1991 and 2001, and 44 suicides annually from 2001 to 2011. Maniilaq Social Services Director Bree Swanson said it’s too soon to know for sure, but annual suicide numbers are looking better:

“Our program started in about 2009. So from 2009 to now is when we had the 14 suicides. So far we're less than half of what they were the previous ten years before. So it's showing promise for us,” said Swanson

While the long-term emphasis may be shifting, therapy and crisis intervention are still important parts of suicide prevention. If you are looking for help for yourself or others, the number for Alaska’s statewide suicide prevention and crisis support hot line is 1 (877) 266-4357.

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