Suicide is an issue that has plagued Alaska at high rates for years, with rural areas seeing the highest numbers. The latest data from the state suggests that rate has been rising in recent years, and continues to be higher in Western Alaska. Now a newer prevention model is making a dent in the suicide rates by giving the region research, strategies, and letting villages decide for themselves how to use this information.
KNOM’s Davis Hovey reports on P.C. CARES.
“Suicide has always been a really hard issue to talk about…even for myself personally.”– Emily Murray
That’s Emily Murray of Elim. She’s on the local steering committee for Promoting Community Conversations About Research to End Suicide, aka P.C. CARES. As Murray described, the topic of suicide has long been an issue that isn’t discussed openly in local communities.
Yet it affects whole villages and towns all over Western Alaska, in places where only a few hundred people like Murray live.
“It took me a long time to talk about my parents, but to me it was a very long and difficult road. I carried a lot of false guilt, that’s what I’m calling it now, thinking I could have done something, maybe if I was there then it wouldn’t have happened…People without meaning to, they said ‘oh if you were there then it wouldn’t have happened.’ And so (they) tell somebody it was your fault, and it wasn’t your fault.”– Emily Murray
There seems to have been a shift as conversations about suicide are happening throughout Western Alaska. Facilitators with P.C. CARES have been trained to host 5 Learning Circles in communities from the Bering Strait Region, Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, and Northwest Arctic Borough over the winter months.
Lisa Wexler, a primary investigator with PC Cares, says they work with village-based coordinators (VBCs) and health aides to reach more people locally.
“The whole process is all about self-determination and about people deciding for themselves what they want to do and how they want to do it. We’re here to sort of spark interest and maybe a few new ideas in the mix, to give people a chance to come together to learn and to take action to make their communities more well.”
After trying the model for the first time in the Northwest Arctic Borough from 2015 to 2017, which resulted in 64 learning circles hosted by local facilitators in ten communities, PC CARES has been adapted for the Bering Strait Region. The project seeks to hold five sessions in five regional communities per year for three years, giving all 15 Bering Strait villages the opportunity to participate.
According to Wexler, in each community that adopts P.C. CARES, the goal is to train four local facilitators so that the community can host its own conversations, which they refer to as learning circles.
“And we were able to track what people did afterwards; not only did people learn new information, not only did people get new skills and feel like they had more people to work with to do wellness and prevention, but they also talked to their friends and family about it and those people, their friends and family, went on to do more prevention after.”
Diane McEachern has piloted some of these learning circles at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Kuskokwim Campus in Bethel, where she has also created a course that gives college credit to PC CARES facilitators. She also works with PC CARES as a trainer and mentor for facilitators in the region.
McEachern says she has seen a strong response from participants as they learn about suicide research and decide how to use that locally.
“And so it’s really in the hands of the community, what they want to do with information, which is different from the old days, or not so old days, where people would come in and tell people what they ought to do and this model shies away from that completely.”
McEachern is also a master trainer with the ASIST suicide intervention model and she emphasizes that individual suicide prevention skills for one-on-one scenarios are still needed. But those efforts are greatly complemented by the PC CARES model, which encourages people to work together across sectors in their community to take action before a suicide crisis.
That’s one of the reasons why Murray in Elim likes the P.C. CARES model too, because local community members can also take ownership of the healing process.
“In order for communities to heal, I believe it has to come from us. It can’t come from outside, it has to come from us saying that we want to heal.”
And, as Murray goes on to say, now is the time for healing in Western Alaska.
The next P.C. CARES learning circle in the Bering Strait Region is scheduled for this Sunday, January 19th, in Brevig Mission. If you are interested in attending, please contact Emma Olanna at 642-2228
SUICIDE PREVENTION RESOURCES: If you are thinking about suicide, or are worried about someone who might be, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Stop Suicide Alaska at 1-877-266-HELP.
Image at top: VBCs from the Bering Strait Region gather in Nome for a P.C. CARES information session. Photo from Davis Hovey, KNOM (2019)