Officials alarmed by Yukon-Kuskokwim suicides

Anchorage, Alaska (AP) July 2010

The suicides of as many as nine young people from Yukon-Kuskokwim villages in the past two months have alarmed local and state officials.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. is sending a crisis response team to the village of Scammon Bay, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

The village requested the help. The Yup'ik community of 530 near the Bering Sea has lost four young men in a year. Two killed themselves in June.

The tribal council offered a free drum of gasoline as a door prize to bring people to a Thursday meeting to talk about the mix of drugs, alcohol and the increasing number of suicides.

The tribal council executive director, Brandon Aguchak, said, “There's something different going on this year.”

State troopers say alcohol played a part in some but not all of the suicides in western Alaska.

The 20-year-old son of Scammon Bay school Assistant Principal Harley Sundown killed himself in June.

“He wasn't depressed at all. It's just something that he put in his mind when he was drinking one night in Bethel,” Sundown said. “It's just something he did at the spur of the moment, and that's one of the things we do in our culture: We always say you don't do something on the first impulse.”

“Parents need to know what they can say to their children, how they can raise them to avoid issues like that so kids always learn how to value life ... how valuable life is and how heartbreaking it is to have parents go through what some kids might do,” he said.

Seven of the recent deaths came in the Wade Hampton Census area near the mouth of the Yukon River, one of the poorest places in the country and home to the highest suicide rate in the state between 2004 and 2008, according to the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics.

The lack of jobs and opportunities, alcohol abuse, trauma, abuse and mental problems can be contributing factors in suicide for all population groups, said James Gallanos, lead suicide prevention coordinator for the state.

Akiak tribal administrator Sheila Williams, who lost an uncle and cousin to suicide, estimates there have been five suicides in the Yup'ik village of about 350 people in the past six or seven years.

“We openly talk about it,” she said. “We've started a family healing and wellness program.”