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Community members create resources in suicide awareness for Indigenous people

Bill Pagaran holding a presentation. (Photo curtesy of Bill Pagaran)
Bill Pagaran holding a presentation. (Photo curtesy of Bill Pagaran)

In Alaska, a large community of people is trying to bring awareness and decrease suicide rates by holding educational meetings, events, and presenting in schools to teach the youth about the warning signs of someone that may be suicidal.

Bill Pagaran is Tlingit and Filipino and works as a president of a nonprofit in Palmer, Alaska, called Carry the Cure.

Carry The Cure logo

Pagaran says that the idea of Carry the Cure was created after he played with a symphony in a village school in northern Alaska.

After the music stopped, the principal of the school told the students to go up to the musicians. Many of the children came up to Pagaran, who played the drums.

He says “Until I gained healing until I embraced who I was as a child in god, as a Tlingit until I embraced those things, it was just, ‘What could I do?’... and I just thought, gosh, if there was any way that I could bring hope for kids like me, kids like I met in that village, other people around the world if there was any way I could bring hope so that they could live another day.”

He created the nonprofit to tie spiritual, cultural, and clinical practices of healing to help save the youth.

He also says a large part of the mission is to visit every village in Alaska with their Committed to Life suicide prevention program.

“Our main program is a suicide prevention program for the public, school assembly, and public presentations called Committed to Life So we give people reasons to live. That's the whole deal, giving people hope, giving them; practical tools, clinical tools, cultural tools, spiritual tools. Reasons to commit to life”

The Committed to Life program is structured to be fun and full of games. According to Pagaran, it is like a “Native-style ‘Tonight Show.’” In the presentations, there are Indigenous dancers from many cultures, including Yupik and Cree.

“We use that as a way in saying, “This is who we are” and it’s important to embrace that as apart as our message in committing to life”

After the dancing, he starts a presentation on addressing identity.

One way that he does this is with a game called “Who am I?” He shows distorted photos of celebrities and has the audience guess who it is.

“The students will guess who they are “Who is this”... Finally, I show the most distorted picture, less distorted picture, and then the clear picture of the celebrity is… then after that, I will communicate that message and relay that to whoever is watching. “Thank you for helping me figure out who those people are, but what's more important is who are you? And what are you born to do?”

During the presentation, many illustrations drive home the message of identity. When the presentation ends, participants make a vow of Commitment to Life.

“We just make this verbal commitment to make a commitment to life. It goes like this; ‘We make a commitment to life and pursue my purpose. Whether times are good or bad, whether I have money or not. Even when I’m sick. When I am alone or lonely, I choose life.'"

Other non-profit organizations work to educate the public on various tools, recognize warning signs, and reduce suicide rates in Indigenous youth in Alaska.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention logo
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention logo

Dustin Morris is the Alaska area director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. He started in the role three years ago.

“My job varies from day to day from moment to moment on what my priorities might be. Most importantly is just helping the chapter stay focused on our mission– which is to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide.”

Morris says that in its mission, the foundation creates more advocacy, events, and educational material to distribute. He says that with their recently approved paid position, there should be more materials and collaborations with other organizations.

The chapter has several video presentations available on their website, and varying degree of presentations for students, teachers, and parents.

There are some other organizations that utilize these programs and videos, like the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They use the Interactive Screening Program.

The Interactive Screening Program is designed so that participants can stay anonymous, and get connected to mental health resources.

“We are working with a number of agencies that we haven’t normally been able to establish relationships with, which allows us to grow our message and to assist other agencies and communities.”

James Biela is a field ambassador based in Bethel for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and a co-founder of the Alaska chapter for 12 years.

Biela says that after someone in his village died by suicide, he wanted to learn more about prevention.

“Although I have a master’s degree in social work, they didn't teach you that much in suicide awareness… So I went online and wrote to the American Suicide prevention specialist…And so a group of us got together and we started the work to get the chapter going.”

He says the chapter takes the materials that the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has, and adds cultural ties to the material when using the programs in rural areas.

"I worked with the youth and they made it Yupik. They made it their culture. So it was a blend of western and their Yupik culture traditions… and since then we’ve been doing it every year, besides these pandemic times."

Pagaran, the president of Carry the Cure has recently released a book called “Rise Above It.” The book is supposed to be used as a tool guide to help people rise above different challenges in life.

He wrote the book after an attempt to rename the mountains in Anchorage called Suicide Peaks – to North and South Yuyanq’ Ch’ex, which means “breath from above.”

“The idea is this the spirit of death, the spirit of suicide has no right to our people in Alaska anymore.”

Pagaran says that on June 7th, 2022 the Geographic Names board in the State of Alaska voted on the name change, and was denied 3-4. Pagaran says he is working actively to appeal the decision.

If you are worried about a loved one and their risk, here are some of the warning signs;

  • Talking about wanting to die or committing suicide
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
  • Talking about feeling trapped
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of drugs or alcohol
  • Acting anxious or agitated
  • Behaving recklessly
  • Change in sleeping habits - too much sleep or too little sleep
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about revenge
  • Extreme mood swings
Hannah Bissett is a Dena'ina woman who is currently enrolled at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Hannah is pursuing an International Studies degree and is president of two student organizations on campus.