Published November 17, 2014
She's just a regular Alaska Native, she says — trying to be cool, even when she's not.
Then Natasha Singh issues a blunt announcement to the unsuspecting audience: She suffers from depression.
It's a taboo subject in Native communities across a state with a startlingly high rate of suicides, particularly among Alaska Natives. Singh believes many suicides among her peers are the result of this silence of young people denying their pain or numbing it with alcohol and drugs only to take the only way out they know.
Singh, who also suffers from anxiety, wants to remove the stigma of seeking help in Alaska Native communities. That's why she decided to speak at one of 10 "listening sessions" being held nationwide by federal agencies through February.
"What we need to tell our people is, 'Yes, we do have mental issues,'" the 28-year-old Athabascan attorney said days after speaking at the recent session in Anchorage. "It's a serious concern that we need to start identifying and talking about."
Federal officials say the sessions aim to explore ways to better address the disproportionate rate of suicides in Alaska Native and American Indian communities, most notably among the young. The next session is scheduled for Monday in Oklahoma City.
The rate of suicides among indigenous Americans between the ages of 15 and 29 was nearly double the national rate in 2006-2007, according to the latest figures available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Alaska's numbers are even more jolting. In the same two-year period, there were a total of 284 suicides in the state, according to the federal data. Alaska Natives, which make up less than 18 percent of the state's estimated population of 680,000, accounted for 96 of those deaths. That's a rate of 42.32 suicides per 100,000 people, compared with a 16.6 percent rate for non-Natives.
Few Alaska Natives are untouched. Singh, who found help through counseling, just lost a 22-year-old relative to suicide, and she said her boyfriend's sister killed herself. Recently, Singh attended a funeral for a man who took his life.
"We go to these types of services so often," she said. "We see the heartbreak."
Ultimately, the goal of the listening sessions is to work with tribal leaders to develop strategies and coordinate resources, said Dr. Rose Weahkee with the Indian Health Service. The agency is participating in the effort along with the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. A more immediate goal is to share information at a national conference next year.
"The listening sessions give us an opportunity to hear directly from tribes," said Weahkee, director of the IHS behavioral health division. "Everyone has a role to play in suicide prevention."
At the four-hour Anchorage session, there were almost as many suggestions as the people who lined up before two federal officials: Visit Alaska's remote villages. Establish more programs dealing with the substance abuse that figures into so many suicides. Improve economies in the impoverished villages, where unemployment rates are huge. Look to Facebook and other networking venues to reach out to young people. Form healing circles. Promote ancient traditions. Train people in suicide intervention skills.
Social service experts point to an Anchorage student's quick action that led to a successful suicide prevention in rural Alaska. The student received a text message Tuesday from a boy threatening to kill himself. Authorities at the undisclosed town found him at home with a gun, writing a suicide note. He was taken to a hospital.
Speakers at the session spoke tearfully about loved ones who weren't so fortunate, and some — like Darrell Vent — who were.
Once, he woke up on the floor with a blown eardrum and a gun next to him, a narrow miss. He quit drinking 20 years ago after almost killing himself more than once in Huslia, an Athabascan community of 300 in Alaska's interior, he said.
"I quit because I had to make a choice," he said. "I figured I wasn't going to survive if I kept drinking."
Vent, 48, was depressed back then, but had no one to talk to and he sees the same dilemma today. A member of the village tribal council, he wants trained counselors living in villages. Talking about personal struggles remains taboo today, however, so people turn to alcohol and drugs, which only adds to the desire to end it all. Over the years, close to 30 people in his village have committed suicide, including a cousin who hanged himself.
"It's not a moment of darkness," he said. "It's a disease. It's depression."
Barbara Franks, a Tlingit Indian, spoke as a representative of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and as a grieving mother. Her dream outcome would be a statewide suicide prevention program for middle school students.
She wishes such a program existed when her son, Ron Whitcraft, was in middle school. Her voice breaks as she recalls the humiliation her son experienced when he asked a question in class, and the teacher said it was a dumb question.
Years later, with his father dying of cancer, Whitcraft showed a festering spot on his back to friends, who told him it was cancer. Franks believes her son avoided going to a doctor because he feared being ridiculed — as he had been by the teacher — even though he believed he was sick. He killed himself 13 years ago, when he was 23.
"He took it upon himself, I am thinking, that he didn't want to put me through all the things he saw me go through with his dad dying of cancer," she said.