When 49-year old Anthony “Dean” Choquette jumped from a balcony in the Dena’ina Center on the final day of the Alaska Federation of Natives conference, it brought home the reality of Alaska’s suicide epidemic for many adults, teens, and children.
“Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, but love leaves a memory that no one can steal,” said resident Doreen Lacy. “Help us use this tragic event to show a deeper understanding and love to the people who are grieving,” she said.
Alaska is the state with the highest rate of suicide per capita in the country. It has twice the number of suicides than the country’s average. For Alaska Natives, that rises to more than three times the average.
Within the state, the Northwest Arctic has the most suicides per capita. For men in their late teens and early twenties, the numbers rise to about 10 times the national average.
“We have all heard the statistics but more than that we all know our communities, we know our own pain, the pain of our neighbors, our friends and loved ones,” said former Iditarod champion John Baker. “We know the enemies that have worked to tear our homes apart. We have all looked into the eyes of someone we know and seen that their passion for life is missing. Alaskans have faced this pain, these challenges for a very long time.”
Baker is at the forefront of a new statewide “wellness initiative” to take a stand against suicide, alcoholism, substance abuse, and domestic violence.
The goal is to have at least one wellness ambassador in every community around the state, especially in the rural and bush villages. Ambassadors will be trained to notice warning signs and be an early support for someone in crisis.
The program, called Alaskans Changing Together, or the ACT! Initiative, was introduced by Baker, with the support of Gov. Bill Walker.
“You know, as governor, I receive daily what’s called commissioner notifications. The most challenging ones for me to recover from are the notifications of suicides, our young people. Nothing stays with me longer than those,” said Walker.
“You know, we have lived here for thousands of years,” said Churchill. “Our ancestors were strong. They were warriors. We should be strong and be warriors too. We should continue to work at keeping our language, keeping our culture, and do everything we can to help those teachers who are holding this culture and this language in their hands. We should not let it slip away.”
The connection between wellness and a sense of cultural community is something Baker’s youth program stresses. The young leaders set up culture days at their schools, encourage dancing and singing.