July 5, 2010 1:47 PM   Subscribe

Help me help them. Please.

I live and teach in Fairbanks, Alaska. In the summer I teach Language Arts for Upward Bound at UAF. All of my students come from rural AK villages and most if not all of them are Alaska Natives. Today, at the end of class a student received a text saying that yet another Chevak (a village of less than 1,000) community member had committed suicide. This is FOURTH time this has happened to the students in this program THIS SUMMER. We only have 40 students and 13 target schools.

The worst part about it... these kids (ages 14-18) were shook up, but the most common feeling they expressed was a kind of "not again" weariness. Every. Single. One. of my students has had a relative of some sort commit suicide. Whether it's a close relative or a second cousin is irrelevant to me. My heart is breaking for them. This should be stopped. Someone should care. I care.

I want ideas for my 11 students. I want them to know there is hope, that they have power to change things, that suicide is a problem and not a solution, that this NEVER EVER has to be an option for them. But I don't want to lecture. I want activities that will put the power to act in THEIR hands, not mine. What kinds of things can I do with them in the 2 hours/day I have them that will make a difference? We only have two weeks left. I can think of letter-to-a-congress-person ideas, but I want more. What can these kids do to change things?

PS- most of these kids test around a 4th grade reading and vocab level. Some of it is just poor test taking skills, but some of them do have education gaps to put it mildly.
posted by madred to Education (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Madred, this is heart-wrenching--good for you for caring so much and wanting to make a difference.

The only thing I can think of is sharing a book or story, of someone who overcomes tragedy and goes on to a triumphant future. I wish I had a the perfect recommendation for this group, but unfortunately I don't know YA lit well enough to do that. It's such a common theme though...maybe something like Bridge to Terabithia? Even Harry Potter?
posted by Sublimity at 2:44 PM on July 5, 2010

An idea--Have them investigate the most common factors that contribute to people committing or attempting suicide (emotional stress, financial stress, low self-esteem, etc.) and find community and online resources for people in distress.

Another idea--have them interview people whose lives have been touched by suicide (which sounds like all of your students) about the impact the act has on the friends, family, and neighbors of the distressed person. Drafting interview questions, compiling and editing the results could make a great English assignment.

If you have any access to technology, consider having a video component as well. Even if you don't have a camcorder or a Flip camera, many cell phones and standard digital cameras can take video. Host the videos on YouTube (after getting image release forms signed by interview subjects, of course) and embed them on a Google Site, or link them to a Word Press blog. Podcasts are a more lightweight yet still powerful media you could tap into as well.

I'm not familiar with Alaska's English Language Arts standards, but CA's includes multimedia & digital publishing, so you'd still be meeting instructional goals as well. MeMail me if you want some suggestions for free web-based apps to help with this. Good luck!
posted by smirkette at 2:50 PM on July 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

I like the idea of a big, engaging creative project, like smirkette suggested -- something to give them a goal to focus on outside the normal classroom tempo, with something they've created at the end of it. Have them engage with the events by investigating the issues around suicide would give them a lot of opportunities to come across helpful information and viewpoints... although I wonder if it mightn't be counterproductive in some way -- my (very much lay) understanding is that when a community, or a school population focusses too tightly on a spate of suicides it can tend to prompt more to do it and/or generally make the mood more morbid. But that might not be completely wrong. Anyway: maybe something lighter - a creative project like a short film? Video-articles on whatever they find interesting? Or something of their own choosing?

I think it'd be good to share some heartening, life-affirming stories with them, too -- maybe films? I always liked watching videos in class, from primary school to uni. Sort of feels like you're getting away with something. I am drawing a blank on titles, though. I guess I watch too many gloomy films...
posted by Drexen at 3:08 PM on July 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Postsecret.com has long been an advocate for suicide prevention. This is a recent article (automatic video load warning) that Time did regarding how the community of Postsecret readers helped prevent a suicide.

I can't remember the exact name of the hotline that he supports... Hopeline, maybe? Perhaps that organization would have resources for you to look into. At the very least, maybe your students can get something out of postsecret itself.

Best of luck!
posted by wwartorff at 3:37 PM on July 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh man. I work in Alaska Native communities, and I feel your frustration. Several young people I know have died in violent or senseless ways, and it happens so regularly it's like the tide coming in.

No amount of caring can change the circumstances here, and welcome to something that has burned out so many teachers and community workers already. You're probably dealing with exceptionally resilient kids given the kind of program you're running. But they go home to the village, and the forces tearing at them from very different directions will be formidable when they do.

These kids have seen so much. They, and their communities, are basically experiencing collective PTSD. You have to accept you cannot change much, or change much quickly. What I think I am saying is that by being there, doing what you are doing as best you can, and not giving up under these conditions you *are* doing something that you need to accept will be very incremental, very frustrating, and yet ultimately, marginally, make a difference in the lives of a couple of the people you teach and touch over time. You don't have to do anything special, really.

But try to keep it going. Befriend one or two of your kids, and then don't lose touch. Be an adult presence in their lives going forward. It's easy. They're all on Facebook all the time.

I have been to far too many funerals for young people in the last few years. There are days you'll want to give up. Don't.
posted by fourcheesemac at 3:37 PM on July 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

This page on causes of suicide in northern communities and community resources that help prevent suicide includes links to several resources that are useful for native and non-native communities alike.
posted by thatdawnperson at 3:42 PM on July 5, 2010

Best answer: Hey madred, I'm feeling the need to write a short novel about this, so I'll do my best to keep it short.

1. Community and self awareness. If you haven't already done this, a talk about recognizing behavior and tell tale signs both personally and among neighbors and friends would be helpful. Include how to deal with situations and what resources are available. You might even try some role playing tasks to simulate various situations.

Your resources may be limited, but still share everything you can find. Hotline #s, outreach, counseling.

2. Suicide Survivor Forums on the internet. There are lots of these and most of the people I've met on them concur that had they visited the forums before the crisis, there would have been no crisis. The forums are a really powerful tool and since your kids are kinda young I would cherry pick some of the better stories to share with them. Even if you only use them as you're own personal tool, I think they will be very helpful.

3. Get some back up. Talk to some counselors, read some books and hit those forums. The more you understand suicide the better prepared you're going to be to help in whatever capacity you choose.

Down here among my teacher buddies there's a kind of myth that they all try to live up to. To be that one teacher who opened your eyes and changed your life forever. The teacher who you can't ever forget. That's you, madred.
posted by snsranch at 4:45 PM on July 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Native Alaskan teenagers are inundated with official suicide prevention discourse, to the point that it is like white noise.

Contact a senior educator, clergyman, or elder in Chevak to find out if any of your students were close to one of the recent suicides (especially by kinship).

Specific kids might be more at risk than others. The can spread in families and particular social groups (hunting crews, for example).

I can help you find someone at UAF if you don't have good people to turn to for advice. I can maybe help on h Chevak side as well. Memail me.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:12 PM on July 5, 2010

Thinking about a more distant the future: Don't a lot of Native American groups have either high suicide rates or very high rates of alcoholism, poverty, and the like? What about reaching out to other cultural groups that share this problem? I know that the conditions of existence are probably extraordinarily different, for, say, a North Dakota native compared to an Alaskan native, but I would think a lot of the underlying stresses and causes for despair would be similar. Perhaps an exchange of ideas with other tribes might turn up some new thoughts on how to attack the problem. Surely there must be some tribal communities that deal better with this than others --some "success" stories out there?
posted by Ys at 8:16 PM on July 5, 2010

Best answer: I don't know how much of this advice transfers to Native Alaskan communities, but here in Australia (where Indigenous suicide rates are also shockingly high), research suggests that focusing excessive attention on suicide as an issue actually increases the risk of further suicides.

There's a great resource called Mindframe which gives evidence-based advice to various professional groups on how to approach suicide without causing further harm. It talks a lot about journalists, and doesn't specifically cater to teachers, but there's a lot of research behind it and I reckon the whole resource is worth reading.

Basically, the advice goes: Avoid narratives which present suicide as a solution (reasonable or otherwise) to problems. Don't be explicit about suicide methods. Do put suicide in context - it's often a consequence of mental illness, addiction or other psycho-social problems. Don't talk about 'suicide epidemics'. Be mindful of Indigenous cultural practices regarding speaking of the dead.

Some of this might seem counter-intuitive; we usually assume that talking openly about an issue will 'break down stigma' and help solve the problem. But the research shows that when it comes to suicide, the opposite is true. What does help is de-stigmatising mental illness, encouraging anyone suffering to seek help and teaching skills for staying well. Of course, seeking help and staying well may be difficult for kids in highly disadvantaged areas.

So, tread carefully. Consult widely with community leaders before you start allocating chunks of lesson time to discussion of suicide. Consider whether the urge to 'do something' is coming from the kids themselves, or whether it's your own (completely justified) outrage talking. As you and others have noted, suicide is (tragically) not new to them. I'm not saying you should do nothing, but keep your goals small and your rhetoric restrained. Whatever you do for the next two weeks, it will not stop suicides from happening, so be careful not to promise them that as an outcome.

Maybe you could ask the kids to make their own suggestions for positive projects they could do with or for their communities. Perhaps something that would also give them an excuse to stay in touch with each other over the summer months. For example, is there any public access to the internet where these kids live? You could help them build a website that will become a sort of repository of community stories, pictures, music, etc. They could fund-raise or seek donations to obtain basic cameras, and you could encourage them to keep updating it once they go back home.

Of course, I don't know the kids or where they're from, so maybe there are reasons a project like that wouldn't work. But you know what? The best people you can possibly ask are the kids and community leaders themselves. I wish you all the best; this is an awful situation and it's great that you're doing what you can to assist.
posted by embrangled at 8:32 AM on July 6, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. Now that I've slept on it, I'm in a less panicked state and I do recall the advice not to focus on the topic of suicide. My class is already very outside the box. My students are helping me with the set dressings and props for Two Gentlemen of Verona by our local Shakespeare troupe. It's an enormous project and they've been very focused and excited. I think today we'll keep working on that. The weather is beautiful and we'll make up stupid songs using new vocabulary words while we work.

I just love these kids so much. Every year I get a new batch and their journal entries are like reading about life in a war zone after an earthquake. The alcoholism, the senseless deaths, the sexual and physical abuse, the loss of heritage, the fetal alcohol syndrome, life in village AK is like nothing I've ever known.... And yet they come to class and they laugh and make jokes and study. Sometimes they fall asleep or give me that "this is bullshit" slump, but for the most part they are heroic. But I know what adulthood might do to them. I fear their loss of hope in the future.

I don't presume to think that I can make any big earth shattering changes. I just want to inspire them to do it. Next week my lesson plans include postsecret post cards, protest culture in the 1960's and a few other things that will hopefully light a fire under their collective resilient asses.

Thanks to all of you.
posted by madred at 9:36 AM on July 6, 2010

Good for you madred, and thanks for doing what you do. Have you visited Chevak?

It's not all bad, really. There's a lot that's incredibly beautiful and just plain good.
posted by fourcheesemac at 4:31 PM on July 6, 2010

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