Federal program supports Togiak in a community approach to mental health

Jan 15, 2019

The Traditional Council of Togiak is on its way to setting up a grassroots prevention plan to increase mental health awareness in the community. It will receive $35,000 in federal funding.

A view from Togiak in August 2018.
Credit Austin Fast/KDLG

The Traditional Council of Togiak is developing a new framework to address and prevent suicide. In November, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration selected Togiak to participate in its training and technical assistance program. The tribe will receive $35,000 in federal funding to craft a sustainable suicide prevention plan.

SAMHSA began the selection process by ranking the nation’s 12 Indian Health Service regions based on need. They then interviewed stakeholders in those regions who identified Native communities that might benefit from such training. According to Gloria Guillory, project manager for SAMSHA's T&TA Center, Togiak was chosen not only because of its level of need, but also because it has the capacity to implement programs and activities in a short period of time.

“Through the nomination and ranking process Togiak did come to the top as a community that would benefit from taking part in the training and technical assistance opportunity," she explained. "Then also their capacity, you know. Really, to take on a project like this you really need tribal leadership support, which they have.”

During a recent SAMHSA training call, Tribal Administrator Brice Eningowuk stressed the importance of including a wide range of community members when developing a prevention plan.

“We’re trying to work together with all of our entities here to address a lot of these issues," he said. "Suicide is one, opioids is another. There’s a lot that, if we can all work together, I think this is a great way to move things forward in a positive direction.”

Credit Reporting on Suicide © 2015

Alaska has one of the highest suicide rates in the country; across the state, suicide rose by 13 percent between 2012 and 2017, according to a recent report by the Alaska State Department of Epidemiology. In western Bristol Bay, the suicide rate is about 50 percent higher than the rest of Alaska.

Peter Lockuk Sr. is a tribal council member. He suggested that substance misuse and economic strain could contribute to depression in the community.   

“In my own opinion, a lot of our young folks that have completed high school are out of jobs," he said. "Our economy is pretty hard to cope with because of the high cost of stuff. Gasoline, food, electricity, phone, you name it. They skyrocket. And without a job, those are really hard to overcome, you know.”

Togiak Mayor Anna May Kasak has been involved in the community’s wellness efforts for years. She hopes that SAMHSA’s support will renew local focus on activities like talking circles.

“I think that talking circles really help a lot when there is so much going on," she explained. "We have men’s and women’s separate talking circles where men gather together and women, with young ladies, gather together, to talk about certain issues that they cannot talk amongst – even from their families. We have a set of rules that we point out before we close the doors. There shouldn’t be no in and outs, because these talking circles are sacred.”

Kasak said that such activities give young people the opportunity to learn from and participate in their community's traditions and way of life. 

“We want to plan more with other trips having to do with hunting, teaching our young people about survival, teaching our young people about how our ancestors used to live," she said. "I think it’s a great way to touch on their imagination, when we’re out in the wilderness, of what it must have been like for our ancestors to live free of – I don’t think we were really free of emotional things, but I think they were more mentally prepared to combat these things.”

Moving forward, Kasak said, it is important for those youth to plan wellness activities as well as participate in them; being involved in that process will give them lasting tools.

Guillory says that through the training, SAMHSA aims to help the community become involved in and take on prevention efforts. When the community is involved, she says, the resulting programs will be more culturally relevant and are more likely to last.  

“Really for them to build on their culture, their tradition, their beliefs, their language, those values. That’s the most important piece. It doesn’t come from us, from SAMHSA, or outside agencies. They’re the experts in their community, and they know what works and what doesn’t. So really relying on them to provide us that knowledge and insight, and we work alongside them to provide support and resources as they’re going through the process.”

So what’s next for Togiak? The project’s organizers are still in the first stages of planning, which includes assessing how residents view suicide and prevention efforts in their community and identifying resources that are already available. In the coming months, they will draw up a budget and a preliminary prevention plan. The hope is that their efforts will last long after SAMHSA’s contract with the tribe ends in September.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273 - TALK [8255]. Or you can text 741 - 741.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect additional reporting.


Contact the author at isabelle@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.