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Tribal Health Consortium wants to remove stigma behind talking about suicide

Suicide can be a difficult topic to talk about, particularly in a state that is often ranked at the top of the list for deaths by suicide. 

We recently talked to Ingrid Stevens and Janie Ferguson from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a group aiming to remove the stigma behind talking about suicide.

TRIPP CROUSE: I'm Tripp Crouse with KNBA. I'm here in the studio with Ingrid Stevens and Janie Ferguson from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

INGRID STEVENS: My name is Ingrid Stevens. I'm originally from the Native village of St. Mary's. I live and work here in Anchorage and I actually manage the injury prevention program, and this actually oversees injury prevention, suicide prevention and also the domestic violence prevention program. 

JANIE CAQ’AR FERGUSON: (Introduction in Cup'ik) I just said "hello, thank you all for listening. My Cup'ik name is Caq'ar, after my grandfather's sister. My mother is from Nunivak  Island. My English name is Janie Ferguson, and I work at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Suicide Prevention Program.”

CROUSE: Thank you so much. So can you tell me a little bit about the events you're having?

FERGUSON: Yes, so September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. This is a national effort. Sept. 10th through the 15th is National Suicide Prevention Week. (At) ANTHC we recognize suicide as a difficult subject for all communities across Alaska, especially since our communities are so closely connected.

Most importantly, ANTHC is working with our communities to reduce stigma and shame associated with suicide and so ANTHC does this work primarily through our marketing the message of "Tell Your Heart Story." That message is geared around whether those are good times in life or the challenging times, it's important to reach out for support during those times.

Also through the ANTHC Suicide Prevention Program we address suicide by providing statewide access to suicide prevention resources and awareness events, which we are doing throughout this month. An example of those is providing training such as Questions Persuade Refer or the QPR training, that's a one-hour prevention course; additionally we're providing safe talk a four-hour skills training course; and then also applied suicide interventions skills training, that's also known as ASIST, that's a two-day intervention skills course. Additionally, youth and adult mental health first aid, that trains community members on identifying a person in crisis and connecting them with further resources so ANTHC recognizes that once we have a trained and equipped community that's strong, we're able to have those individuals identify and support those at risk for suicide and additionally able to provide stronger and healthier communities. 

CROUSE: You mentioned a really important word, and that's conversation. and Sometimes suicide and the topic of suicide is really hard for some people to talk about but it's also important for people who do want talk about that they're aware of any complications that they may have when they're speaking, certain word choices that they may have might be triggering to somebody who might have those kinds of thoughts. What kind of conversation should we be having about suicide prevention awareness? 

FERGUSON: At ANTHC, we recognize that one conversation can save a life with that individual whose maybe in crisis or if their family member or friends are experiencing suicide and we know that it's a very difficult subject to have and bring up.

A lot of the trainings we offer allow a safe place for family members and friends and community members to learn how to bring up this subject, so it’s in a safe training room where there's support and there's mental health support during that time as well. If someone does find that they're triggered or experiencing emotional distress, they're in a safe place.

A lot of our trainings offer that and allow not only how to recognize an individual at risk, of warning signs and risk factors but also how learning how to say those words out loud. Because that's really important, so I think that that's really crucial is just starting that conversation and learning how each one of us can be a part of that conversation. 

CROUSE: You said "at risk." Are there any kind of warning signs people should keep in mind and be aware of, to be able to start that conversation, to initiate it?

FERGUSON: Primarily there's a lot of things to look out for somebody who's at risk. To categorize that is through verbal cues, so direct or indirect verbal cues those are really crucial so if someone is actively saying things such as “I can't go on anymore” or “I just can’t do this anymore,” direct things perhaps include "I want to die,” those would be direct signs, so those are crucial things to follow up.

In all of our work that we do, we say to take all signs very seriously. 

If somebody either says or does things like this, it’s important to follow up with that person.  So there's verbal cues, there's also behavior clues or cues.

Those could be things such as an individual may be acting a bit more reckless; maybe they're increasing their use of substances, whether that's alcohol or other substances; other things may be giving away their possessions’ perhaps there's even mood changes with that person. All these things are really important to look out for whether they're direct verbal cues, indirect verbal clues, behavior changes or even changes in their mood. 

CROUSE: If someone recognizes these warning signs what are some of the steps to take to help this person?

STEVENS: Hey Janie, thanks for describing a lot of the case symptoms and 

signs for suicide. If someone is actively having thoughts of suicide and you've asked them directly and confirmed it, it's very important that you just support them and listen to their actual messages or their story, which Janie's talked about the Tell Your Heart Story campaign that we have at ANTHC. But really it's about keeping them safe. There are several ways you can keep folks safe either if they're in their home or if they're out in the community.

An example, if they're actually here in the Anchorage community you can call Anchorage Police Department non-emergency and do something what's called a wellness check.

Here on the campus Alaska Native Medical Campus we do have services with Southcentral Foundation that are tiered in the behavioral health system and it ranges from counseling to talking circles.

Then finally if they're in a remote area, we just recommend that you contact the nearest behavioral health facility or the Alaska Care Line which is 1-877-266-4357 or the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255.

FERGUSON: If I could just add on to that another crucial thing is when we talk about suicide and suicide prevention in our communities often times there's a lot of stigma and shame.

I know we mentioned this and it’s really important to ask that questions directly if somebody is thinking about killing themselves and to avoid maybe the belief that when you ask somebody about suicide you might place that thought in their mind, so with an individual who is having active thoughts of suicide, they're either thinking about suicide or their not, so asking if they're thinking about killing themselves won’t put that thought in their mind.

They're already maybe thinking about that or they’re not, and it can actually reduce that barrier for them to reach out for more help once they recognize somebody is asking them about that action, that they maybe contemplating, it can help reduce some of that burden they're carrying and feel open to reach out for more help. 

CROUSE: You’re listening to KNBA 90.3 FM I'm in the studio that was Janie Ferguson and we're also with Ingrid Stevens from Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium talking about suicide prevention and awareness, can you remind people about the events that you're having 

FERGUSON All throughout September, ANTHC is actively promoting the message Tell Your Heart Story, one conversation can save a life.

So we really promote that and promote the Alaska Care Line which was mentioned earlier. ANTHC will also participate in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention out of the Darkness Walk on Saturday, September 15th, and this will be at the Chuck Albrecht ball fields at 4781 Elmore Road in Anchorage from noon to 2 p.m. on September 15th.

We'll also have informational tabling and a booth at the Patient Housing building on our campus, and we'll be doing a lot of work there to reach out to folks and just doing an activity table around art therapy and grounding techniques there in the lobby every Thursday in September from 2 to 5 p.m.

CROUSE: Can you remind everybody about those phone numbers that they can call if they have questions?

STEVENS: so Janie mentioned the Care line several times and so the Alaska Care Line is a huge resource that we did state especially with the Tell Your Heart Story campaign, and that number is 1 877 266 4357 again that's 1 877 266 4357. And we also mentioned the National Suicide Prevention line at 1800 273 8255.