Crisis team sent to village after trio of suicides

ANCHORAGE — A Native village on Alaska’s western coast is reeling from back-to-back suicides of three young adults — with each subsequent death influenced by the preceding one.

A regional tribal health organization is sending an Alaska Native suicide-response-and-prevention team to Hooper Bay next week in what essentially will be a community debriefing. The team members speak Yup’ik, and will focus on traditional healing.

They will be joined by mental health professionals from different Alaska organizations responding en masse to the cluster of suicides.

“We so need the help,” village Mayor Joseph Bell said by telephone Friday.

In Hooper Bay, 530 miles west of Anchorage, everybody knows everybody and many people are related. There are worries that more tragedies could occur, Bell said.

The first death occurred Sept. 24 with the suicide of a 26-year-old man. Alaska State Troopers say the second death occurred Oct. 2 and involved a 24-year-old man who was despondent over his friend’s suicide. Two days later, a 20-year-old woman reportedly distraught over the 24-year-old’s death died in an apparent suicide.

Other response teams representing a variety of tribal groups are planning to travel to Hooper Bay as well, said Christopher Byrnes, emergency services director at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., which is sending the Alaska Native team as well as other mental-health experts.

“We’re going to be there until we’re not needed anymore,” Byrnes said Friday.

Hooper Bay is in a region of Alaska with disproportionately steep rates of suicide.

Alaska as a whole is consistently among U.S. states with the highest overall suicide rates, ranking second in 2013, according to the latest national statistics available. It led the nation in 2010.

In figures provided by the state, suicides among Alaska Natives between the ages of 20 and 29 occurred at nearly triple the overall rate for that age group in the state between 2003 and 2012.

The state and partners have numerous programs to deal with preventing suicide, as well as efforts to prevent further suicides through an approach known as postvention. The outpouring of support being offered to Hooper Bay is an example of what can be done after the fact, said statewide suicide prevention coordinator James Gallanos.

Gallanos, like others who deal with suicide in Alaska, said it is of the utmost importance to let affected villages lead the response, with incoming experts providing support in a safe setting as dictated by locals, who know their communities best.

“It’s about relationships,” Gallanos said. “People who are going through such a tragedy, they require sensitivity and understanding and compassion first and foremost.”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide there are resources available to seek help. Call to the Alaska Careline at (877) 266-4357 (HELP) or visit juneaumentalhealth.org to get connected with mental health information and resources.

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