Minnesota professor Jim Allen may have found the key to reducing youth suicide

Alaska natives had the highest suicide rates in the country. It took a village to convince young people to live.

Alaska natives had the highest suicide rates in the country. It took a village to convince young people to live.

While suicide rates climb slowly but ominously in America overall, they’re actually falling in some of Alaska’s hardest hit Native American villages.

The good news stems from a concerted cultural renaissance, according to University of Minnesota Professor Jim Allen, who spent nearly two decades observing the struggle against suicide in the Yup’ik region.

There, nomadic Alaskan Natives who had thrived off the land for centuries saw major disruptions in the 1970s with the discovery of oil. An economic boom brought an end to their isolated, subsistence way of life -- and rising suicide rates. Early researchers hypothesized that a weakening of the link between individuals and the group was to blame.

“Historically, if you think about what’s happened during the last 100 years, there’s been a sense of hyper individualism and a loss of some of this community binding,” Allen says.

“There are people who live in rural communities who felt a small town sense of belonging, and even in New York City, that sense of neighborhood. That may have become a bit diminished. These things, a sense of place and importance in the world, and bonds with people in the community are very important in developing hope in young people.”

The problem grew until Alaskan Natives died by suicide at a rate 3.5 times higher than the national average. It’s the No. 1 cause of death for youth ages 15-24.

Faced with an urgent need to put an end to the epidemic, Yup’ik elders built a new prevention program based on old values. Allen observed as Native teenagers, many of whom had grown up learning English in modern schools, learned to explore icy rivers, forage, and hunt alongside elders through translators.

Studying patterns in ice formations, the differences in safe ice versus thin ice, was used to talk about risky suicide contributors like binge drinking. Hunting in the traditional mindset that kills don’t come from a hunter’s skill, but an animal’s voluntary sacrifice, became lessons on the value of life.

Through these and other prevention efforts, the Yup’ik community of Alakanuk saw a stretch without any suicides from 2007 to 2013.

Last month, the University of Alaska Fairbanks won $4.25 million from the National Institutes of Health to recreate Alakanuk’s successes in other Native communities. Allen, along with tribal leaders and fellow researcher Lisa Wexler from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, will use those funds to collect data on which community efforts are the most effective at reducing suicide.

Though the strategies may be specific to unique cultures, at the heart of the Yu’nik community’s experiment was the premise that “Every community has a qasgiq,” in the words of Yu’nik leader Billy Charles -- meaning every person is born into a culture with a history.

"And that is something that can be repackaged anywhere in the world,” Allen says.

“The Yu’nik community naturally identified one of the factors that put young people at risk is they don’t understand their place within the community, and their value to the community as a result …We’ve got to think about how we can create these types of settings for young people today, what my Yu’nik colleagues have described as a sense of love and shared belonging.”