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Teens in Rural Alaska Face Drug Abuse and High Suicide Rates; But There are Programs Available

Elijah Hunt

Some in Alaska are trying to help rural teens talk about issues like suicide and drug abuse in the hopes of encouraging community interaction.

It’s not news that Alaska has a high suicide rate, especially in rural communities.  Those areas also face drug issues that are harder to police because of lack of resources and the vastness of the surrounding lands.  However, there are some groups that are targeting teens and the issues they face. 

Dillingham is currently in the midst of a drug crisis.  Although it’s a small community, drugs seem to be in the news weekly. There’s been multiple arrests in recent weeks involving hard drugs like heroin. 

However, there are programs available to teens that aim at making them feel that they have a place to go.  In Dillingham, the SAFE shelter is also home to Myspace, a teen program designed to provide kids with a support base outside of school and home.  There’s tutoring, movies, games and a meal is provided. 

Myspace manager Gregg Marxmiller says the group was formed so that kids have a place to go after school.

“Kids don’t have a place to go, they’ll end up in places that are really, really bad. They need to have shelter, they need to have a place to go because it’s cold outside. Kids were ending up in places where there’s drinking going on, where people were sexually assaulting each other, where they were beating on each other, where drugs were being used. And so they said we don’t want that. Myspace is one of those solutions.”

Marxmiller says the program also offers presentations like Talk Now Talk Often which helps parents and teens learn how to interact. He says Talk Now Talk Often is intended to create dialogue between parents and kids.

Talk Now Talk Often shows parents that questions like “If you had a super power, what would it be?”can start conversations that lead to bigger questions like “What does a healthy relationship look like or how do I not do something that all my friends are doing but still be friends?”

These kinds of questions offer a starting place for kids and parents to meet.

“It tells a parent this is what my kid is about or it tells a kid this is what my parents like. The question is not just for kids to answer, it’s not a one way street, it’s kind of open ended questions that go back and forth and its questions that for the most part kids could ask parents too.”

A study published by the American Journal of Public Health reports that Alaskan natives are four times more likely to commit suicide than those in the lower 48.  Suicide was the sixth leading cause of death in Alaska in 2010 and the leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds. 

Trends like this worry researchers like assistant professor at the Institute of Arctic Biology at University of Alaska Fairbanks Stacy Rasmus who led a team of researchers on an experiment in the Yukon-Kuskokwim area. The collaborators went to Alakanuk with the approval and support of the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation to create some kind of program.  What they ended up creating was designed specifically for Alaska Native teens called Qungasvik.

“In Yup’ik it’s referring to a woman’s sewing kit but even men had a Qungasvik they would put like sharpeners for their knives and other types of things.”

She says she was asked by community leaders to help find the reason why so many young people in that community were committing suicide.

“This community wanted solutions, they wanted answers and they wanted to take responsibility themselves. So really the Elders too stepped forward and that was what was key. Alakanuk had this group of Elders at the time that were just spiritually centered and central. They also identified that the suicide problem is a spiritual problem and it needs a spiritual solution, and suicide effects the spirit in the community. And for communities to cast out the spirit of suicide they need to come together as one mind to do that.”

In the Qungasvik program arose another tool that the researchers were going to utilize.  A qasgiq was originally “the men’s house” a large structure in a Yup’ik community that serves as the communal house and gathering place.  Rasmus says implementing this in the community was essential to the mental health and identity of Alaska Native teens. 

“It was also a communal gathering place. It was just a place where young people and people in the community came together to live and to teach the young people how to live. And what they were saying to me was their young people just don’t know how to live. And within the qasgiq setting they would teach young people about surviving their feelings and do this in a setting where it’s not just talking at young people, it’s not creating talking circles, I think that’s important, but it’s doing too. So it’s learning how to make those fundamental tools to be able to do things like survive on the ice but survive in the village, survive a breakup from a girlfriend or a boyfriend.”

But there are some teens that are taking the charge. Elijah Hunt is a senior at Dillingham High School.  He was one of several teens from Dillingham that went to Anchorage earlier this month to participate in the statewide youth collaboration, Lead On. 

Credit Elijah Hunt

“People from around the state, from different places like Ketchikan, Cordova, here in Dillingham, Anchorage—they all go to Anchorage for the conference, it’s a leadership conference. A lot of people, speakers, come in, give their inspiration.  Basically inspire people to better their own communities.”

After a previous Lead On conference, Hunt and other teens in Dillingham decided to form a youth group for the town.  Youth of Dillingham Leadership Group, or YDLG, was formed to put on community events, clean up the community and bring people together.

Hunt says if the youth wants to see a change in their community they have to take the initiative and stay connected.

“My opinion is that the youth don’t connect with everybody as well, that brings a lot of problems for them, they get led into drugs and alcohol and all that and I believe it’s because of a lack of communication.”

This is Hunt’s last year in high school and he’s planning on moving away for college. However, he says he’s not looking to accomplish anything huge himself—he just wants to start future conversations for young people.

“I guess you could say the thing I want to accomplish is have the youth change for themselves. I want people, us teenagers I guess you could say, to see there is a problem—well, people see there is a problem in our community but people don’t see that we can change that. I want people to realize that we are able to change, we don’t have to just complain about everything. We can actually step up and do something. It’s easy to complain, it’s hard to change but it’s necessary.”

Credit Elijah Hunt
Students from across Alaska listened to motivational speakers and lecturers at Lead On in Anchorage.