In Mountain Village, A VPO Works Tirelessly To Save Her Neighbors
It's Friday night in Mountain Village, and Village Police Officer Anna Bill is trying to stay awake. "It’s only just starting," she says, then groans. "I'm on one hour of sleep."
A potty-mouthed mother of four, Anna’s been a VPO for a little under a year. The night before this, she received 39 calls in about four hours. She and I were just sitting down to a family potluck when she got a call about another assault, and we’re not wasting any time getting there. Anna's driving towards the caller’s house with a paper plate of green beans, which her relatives insisted we take for the road.
We park in front of a small house and Anna and VPO Joseph Rivers walk briskly up the steps. After a while, Anna jogs back out and gets on her phone. The woman inside has tried to kill herself.
"We'll get her to the clinic, okay?" Anna tells the woman's brother, who's standing in the home's arctic entryway. "She's going to be okay." Within minutes, a group of city employees veer into the front yard on four-wheelers. Mountain Village’s city manager runs into the house. They need help carrying the woman out. The woman’s fighting them, but Anna and the others manage to haul her into the back of a battered pick-up with a broken door, the closest thing Mountain Village has to an ambulance.
"Are you guys ready?" Anna shouts. A few men jump in the back to hold the woman down and keep her from rolling out the back of the pickup. Anna swerves down the hill towards Mountain Village’s small health clinic.
"This is like nothing compared to normal calls," she says with a weak laugh. "As long as she’s screaming, kicking, and crying, she’s going to be okay."
"This makes... 54," she says, stopping briefly to count. "Fifty-four individual people in the past seven months."
About 850 people live in Mountain Village; according to the city’s police records, between 5 and 7 percent of them have attempted suicide in the past year. Anna has helped save them all. She’s responded to as many as three suicide attempts a day. She’s cut several people down who have tried to hang themselves.
The Y-K Delta has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, and as in most villages, the first responder is usually a Village or Tribal Police Officer who receives little training or support. Anna never thought she’d be doing this work. As a teenager in Mountain Village, she actually egged one of the village’s old VPOs, along with a few girlfriends that she still refuses to rat out. She was that kid. When a former VPO offered Anna the job, she prayed on it. Then she put in her application and got to work the same day.
"At five o'clock that evening I got sworn in, and my shift started at midnight," she says.
Anna didn’t receive any training in suicide response, or in anything else. She doesn’t have a uniform, and didn’t have any handcuffs until a Trooper lent her some. She’s also miserably paid. "Who wants to risk their life for $13 an hour? Me!" she says, with a booming laugh. She received a $2 raise after her review.
Anna used to work in behavioral health, which gives her an edge, but when it comes to responding to suicide attempts, she's mostly taught herself what to do by listening to old calls.
"There are some signs I wish that I could have noticed on some suicide calls," she says. "You can't blame yourself for it, but it's really hard not to do."
Anna keeps a shotgun shell on her desk. It’s a round from the gun that was used in the first suicide attempt she responded to. She talked the man down, but kept the cartridge as a reminder that things can go bad quickly. She tells the growing number of people she’s helped save that they can call or text her at any time.
"It’s a bond that a normal person wouldn’t be able to see," she explains. "An invisible connection to the next person and the next person, like a chain reaction. I look at them, and they’ll look at me, and I’ll just nod. And I’ll know that they’re okay."
The woman who tried to kill herself is safe in Mountain Village’s clinic. Anna’s running an errand when the phone rings. The conversation's short. "We've got another suicide attempt," Anna says. She turns the car around.
The call is coming from the same house we visited earlier; this time, it’s the woman’s brother. When we get there he’s upset, but hasn’t tried to hurt himself, though his family was afraid he would. He’s calm, eating dinner. Anna talks to him for a while, then gets back in the car.
The brother struggles with alcohol but is making progress, Anna says. He's taken a swing at her a couple times. "Every time I encountered him, we had to fight," she says bluntly. He never really managed to land a punch on her. "I'm too short," Anna explains. "Duck and dodge, baby!" We start to drive home.
By the time we get there, Anna’s exhausted. Her boyfriend, Ivan, fixes her some food. "Every time I deal with any kind of suicide attempts," she says, "I'll have no energy. I'll feel sick. It takes a lot out of me."
It brings up old memories. "I attempted suicide when I was young," she says. "At one point I tried to take a handful of pills and survived."
Anna was 16 when she tried to kill herself. She remembers waking up in Bethel’s hospital and thinking about her family. She says that the experience makes her better at dealing with people on these calls.
"A talk to a lot of these kids and I tell them, 'I've been there,'" Anna says. "'I felt what you felt, I've been through it. And I did it before. But look, I'm here. Now, I'm trying to make a difference.'"
In the time it took KYUK to report this story, Anna responded to several more suicide attempts in Mountain Village. She hasn't lost one yet.
This is part one of a four-part series on first responders in Mountain Village.
- Part One: In Mountain Village, A VPO Works Tirelessly To Save Her Neighbors
- Part Two: In Villages, First Responders Frustrated By An Overburdened Health Care System
- Part Three: In Response To Their High Suicide Rate, Mountain Village Marches For Hope
- Part Four: In Rural Communities, Village Police Officers Face Impossible Job
If you or one of your loved ones is struggling with suicidal thoughts, please call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also call the YKHC Behavioral Health Department's Crisis Response Line at 907-543-6499 or toll-free at 1-844-543-6499.