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In Response To Their High Suicide Rate, Mountain Village Marches For Hope

Elementary school students pose for an unruly group photo at Mountain Village's Walk of Hope on June 16, 2018.
Teresa Cotsirilos/KYUK

Mountain Village Police Officer Anna Bill thought about quitting her job many times; her community kept her going.

"People on the street would literally just stop and come over and give me hugs," she says, "telling me not to give up."

As the community’s de-facto first responder, Anna’s responded to dozens of suicide attempts with little training or support. For now, though, Mountain Village is quiet. It’s a dusty Saturday afternoon and Anna has finally gotten some sleep. We're driving towards the community's school to join the March of Hope, which Mountain Village's tribe organized to promote suicide prevention. When we arrive, about 15 kids and young adults are goofing off near the jungle gym, unfurling a long banner drawn on butcher paper.

The March of Hope is one of roughly a dozen events, programs, and initiatives that Mountain Village has launched in the past few years to address its residents' mental health. As villages with high suicide rates navigate with a health care system that isn’t equipped to help them, local leaders are also combining traditional knowledge and western counseling to build support systems of their own.

"If YKHC is not going to step in and help us," says Anna, "who's going to do follow ups? What can we do for their aftercare? How long are we going to be intervening in their life after this has happened?"

Mental health experts believe that this grassroots approach to suicide response is more effective than an institutional one. Flying suicidal people across Alaska for treatment is expensive, not to mention disruptive for patients, and clinicians in Bethel or Anchorage don’t necessarily understand village culture.

"We don’t involve families as much as we might," said Lisa Wexler, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts. "We have really short-term clinicians that work in those places who really don’t know anything about how things work locally, [or] about how people talk about distress."

A former clinician in Northwest Alaska, Wexler's devoted the past 20 years to studying Alaska Native suicide rates and developing community-based responses to it. In her view, state and regional agencies should empower communities to care for their at-risk neighbors themselves; programs that can be implemented locally should be encouraged and funded.

Health care providers throughout Alaska agree, though not many of their initiatives have reached Mountain Village. Calriqaraq, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation's well-regarded suicide prevention program, has facilitated several workshops in the community over the past five years. YKHC also placed a behavioral health aide in the village this summer, though turnover in those positions is high. Mountain Village has made do without one for up to a year at a time, and YKHC's Behavioral Health Department can be bureaucratic and understaffed as a whole.

Over the past several years, Mountain Village has cobbled together grants to fund its own programs. "To me, it's just overwhelming," said LeeAnna Wilde, the Program Director of Native Connections. Funded by a federal grant to the tribe, the organization is devoted to mental health and suicide prevention. It's also the group behind Mountain Village's March of Hope.

Wilde and her partner, Sharon Alexie, recently received training in suicide response. They haven’t responded to many crisis situations yet, but Alexie says that they both know how to support people who are considering ending their lives.

"It's mostly listening to what they have to say," said Alexie. "They need to feel valued, and that helps them to feel that somebody cares."

Mountain Village also created its own Department of Justice last February, which tries to address the underlying trauma that can fuel suicidal thoughts. Tribal judges like Eugene Landlord provide substance abuse counseling. "When they sober up, they come and thank me," he said. "And I tell them, 'you're the one that should be congratulated, not me.'" (Read our full profile of Landlord here).

The tribe’s wellness coordinator, Daphne Joe, works with survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse. "People who are victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, it hurts," she said quietly. "It's a scar. But I try to give them hope." The community also holds regular healing circles, and a group at the local Covenant Church has created a chapter of Fire and Ice, a substance abuse support group that’s similar to Alcoholics Anonymous.

None of these programs are perfect. Mountain Village can be disorganized, and none of its organizations have the funding they need. But while the Y-K Delta’s suicide rates can be daunting, solutions to the problem can be simple. Experts like Lisa Wexler have found that a single heartfelt conversation can make a difference. In Mountain Village, Native Connections sponsors movie nights, field trips, game nights, and basketball camps to build a sense of community.

"A kid knows a lot, but doesn't understand a lot," explained Sharon Alexie. "This brings them out of their shell, and then we can talk to them."

As the day wears on, the March of Hope grows as it weaves through Mountain Village. Kids run behind Anna’s truck. Sharon Alexie holds a handmade sign and looks excited. "I'm pretty satisfied with the turnout," she says. "I saw somebody recording us; they're waving, they're aware now. They could see that we're trying to bring hope."

The march ends at the old airport, where a group of about 20 kids get ready to roast marshmallows and hotdogs. Anna shows up with a large grill, but doesn’t stay long. After a few minutes, her phone rings. She needs to respond to another call.

*    *   *

About a month after the Walk of Hope, KYUK received a text from Anna Bill and called her right away.

"Let me read to you the letter I turned in when I resigned," she said.

After eight and a half months as a Village Police Officer, and after saving dozens of lives, Anna Bill decided to quit. In the fourth and final article in KYUK's series, we’ll find out why.

This is part three of a four-part series on first responders in Mountain Village.

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.