Hooper Bay is a remote village on the Alaskan coastline, the tundra jutting out into the frigid Bering Sea. It's a quiet town, some 530 miles from Anchorage, where sprawling grasslands converge with icy sea breeze and home to an Alaska Native Yup'ik community of 1,200.
This week, Hooper Bay is in mourning. On Saturday, 21-year-old Carl Dominic Robert Joe was found dead, apparently having died of suicide. Since late September, Alaska Public Media reported, the village lost three other young people in their twenties to suicide.
Noel Tall, 26, had been working in nearby Bethel and was the first to die. His Facebook page (at least what's publicly visible) is full of posts about not being able to sleep, about being bored, about whether or not to go home to Hooper Bay. "He was soft spoken….loved his kid and enjoyed him dancing with my wife..we loved him. ..so sorry bro" one friend wrote on his page. His friend Eric Tomaganuk, 24, died a week later, and soon after, Eric's girlfriend Miranda Seton, 20, took her life. And then less than two weeks after that, the town lost Carl Dominic Robert Joe. "You were very friendly, did everything with care," a friend wrote about Carl.
The news from Hooper Bay has resonated across the state. "There are all kinds of tragedies in Alaska. But small rural Alaska towns feel them with greater depth and feeling, anxiety, fear, and lots of other emotions," wrote Bill Hutton in an op-ed for the Alaska Dispatch News. "You don’t read about it in the paper or on the Internet, you hear it from another human being that you know." Hutton, a high school administrator who now works in the city of Sitka, wrote that the deaths in Hooper Bay brought back memories of too many young people he's known and lost to suicide.
The suicide rate in Alaska is the second-highest in the nation, at around 23 per 100,000 people, according to the latest available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's 10% higher than the national average. And for Alaska Natives 29-years-old and under, that number is almost double–45 per 100,000.
The reasons for a rise in suicide rates are complex, especially when they happen in such a short period of time in a particular town, and it's important not to assume that any one factor can explain the deaths in Hooper Bay. But in the context of high suicide rates, and a small community that's surely suffering right now, it's worth taking a step back and examining what the particular challenges are for young Alaska Natives, and what can be done to try to prevent as many suicides as possible.
Acknowledging that this is a serious public health concern for Alaska, the state government's Suicide Prevention Council developed a suicide prevention plan in 2012, including a high school intervention program has been running for the past two years.
This week, a crisis response team from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation was sent to Hooper Bay, with efforts focusing on debriefing and traditional healing, the Associated Press reports. James Gallanos, statewide suicide prevention coordinator, said the best strategy is to let locals take the lead in the response. “It’s about relationships,” Gallanos said. “People who are going through such a tragedy, they require sensitivity and understanding and compassion first and foremost.”
The crisis response team works in the immediate fallout of the deaths, and attempts to stem what's known as suicide contagion: a documented effect, particularly among young people, where one death influences others who are already vulnerable. But other mental health experts in Alaska are asking themselves once again whether there's a long-term solution to prevent communities like Hooper Bay losing young people to suicide.
Patrick Sidmore is a planner and research analyst for the Alaska Mental Health Board, and has studied mental health in Alaskan communities. He talks about childhood abuse, neglect and household dysfunction (known as Adverse Childhood Experiences in research terms) and how they can influence young Alaska Natives' mental health.
One NIH study found that people who have had one or more adverse childhood experiences were 67% more at risk of attempting suicide. And in 2013, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium released a report that found that Alaska Natives are 10% more likely to have experienced childhood traumas than the rest of the state's population. But for some, childhood trauma doesn't lead to poorer mental and physical health, or poorer economic outcomes–and Alaska's Youth Risk Behavior Survey has some answers as to why that is.
"Alaska Native youth face living in a dominant culture that for many is different from what they experience in their communities," he said. "This can be difficult if a young person’s culture has been devalued as Alaska Native culture has been historically and in many cases still is today. "
There are "protective factors" that help lessen poor outcomes. A connection with a teacher or feeling like you matter could help. In the most recent studies (2011 and 2013), students who felt connected to their communities were three times less likely to have considered suicide: around 35% of the high school students who had considered suicide in the past year said they didn't feel like they mattered, compared with 10% of students who said they did.
"One thing that is a strong protective factor is to participate in cultural traditions. We all need to belong to something bigger than ourselves," said Sidmore, while adding that it's not a fail-proof solution, reiterating the importance of not only having accessible mental health services, but reducing the stigma of using those services.
Two years ago, community leaders in Hooper Bay worked with AmeriCorps volunteers to set up a program called the Hooper Bay Native Survivors, getting students involved in traditional crafts and hunting. It was an attempt to create a sense of belonging in the aftermath of another spate of suicides—at least eight people in 2010. Earlier this year, they told the Alaska Dispatch News they felt they'd succeeded because there had been no suicides since that year. But getting students to find and stay involved with something they feel motivated about can be a challenging task.
Mao Tosi is the head of AK Pride, an organization working with rural Alaskan towns over the last decade to encourage that sense of connection for youth. AK Pride is mostly funded by donations and powered by Alaskans–many of whom grew up in remote towns themselves who travel the country setting up mentorship programs for local youth. He starts with high schoolers, he said, because the impact of having a mentor can change a teen's trajectory well into adult life. Tosi begins by demonstrating what it looks like to be enthusiastic about something you love–whether that's sports, dance, music, traditional culture or something else entirely.
"We have to use what we love to develop their life skills," said Tosi. "Before they turn 18, this is our only opportunity to reach them and connect with them."
He usually takes a team of about 15 mentors who are successful in their fields, and tries to find local mentors who will work with the kids after they leave. The people he brings with him know what it's like to grow up feeling a bit adrift in rural Alaska, and have been "saved," as Tosi puts it, by finding a passion for something.
He's been in touch with members of the Hooper Bay community and is running a campaign, #BreakinTheCycle, trying to raise funds to get his group from their base at Anchorage to come to Hooper Bay:
Hooper Bay, he says, is not unlike a lot of other remote Alaska Native communities where kids have a hard time finding a way to stay connected. Providing them with a mentor who they can look up to as a big brother or big sister not only helps them stay engaged with something they're passionate about, it also means that they begin to understand the message: "Don't forget about your community, don't forget about your school."
Working through the immediate grief and shock of these most recent deaths will likely consume Hooper Bay for the moment. But the rest of Alaska will be looking on to see if this small rural outpost can, perhaps with the help of the tribal health consortium or AK Pride, turn things around in a lasting way for the next generation.