How Culture Heals

For those who come from the village to the city, connecting to culture can be one way to prevent suicide

The Unsah Jan suicide prevention and youth development program uses activities like ice fishing to help young people connect to their culture.

Growing up, Debra Hersrud moved around a lot. And every community she lived in had one thing in common.

“Every place, I had either a friend or acquaintance or someone in the community die by suicide,” Debra shared. “There were a few years where it was more than one. It’s been quite prevalent, and it’s really hard, picking things up after.”

Debra’s experience is the norm, rather than the exception, in Alaska. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Alaska has the second-highest suicide rate in the nation. Suicide rates among Alaska Native people are five times higher than the national average. And Debra just happens to be from the northwest region of Alaska — where suicide rates are the state’s highest.

Although the statistics sound dire, organizations like Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) are chipping away at statewide suicide rates by providing resources and support for at-risk individuals — particularly young people.

“Those [cultural] activities helped bring a clarity to the mind of someone like me, whose life has been impacted hugely by suicide.” – Debra Hersrud

When Debra moved to Anchorage, she expected city life to be different than her experience growing up in the village. But she was surprised at how disconnected she felt from her culture.

“In the village, I was surrounded by my culture and traditional ways,” she explained. “We’d go ice fishing, do subsistence hunting. But in the city, I don’t just go out and hooligan fish by myself.”

Then Debra found CITC’s Unsah Jan Prevention and Youth Development program, which provides wellness and life skills activities to young people — with a specific focus on addressing the factors that contribute to suicide among Alaska Native, LGBTQ+, and other youth.

Unsah Jan staff regularly organize cultural activities like ice fishing and berry-picking that remind people like Debra of home. In 2019, more than 1,300 youth between ages 14 and 24 participated in Unsah Jan cultural and wellness activities.

But how is hooligan fishing connected to suicide prevention? For Alaska Native people and other Native American groups, destruction of culture contributes to high rates of suicide. A CDC study found that individuals who feel connected to their peers, communities, and culture were less likely to try to end their own lives. Positive relationships and mentors can also help reverse the impact of adverse childhood experiences that contribute to suicide risk.

Cultural activities vary by season.

The short version? When people feel connected to their community and culture, they’re less likely to feel that suicide is the only answer to what’s wrong.

“When we went hooligan fishing with Unsah Jan, it was a difficult time in my life,” Debra recalled. “But we fished, and we had frybread, and it really helped my mental state of mind to reconnect me to my roots. And it tied me back to other people. Now I see people randomly, and I remember we fished together, and it brings a smile to my face.”

In addition to providing youth opportunities to connect with culture and build supportive networks of friends and mentors, Unsah Jan prepares individuals for responding to someone who is at risk of attempting suicide or in a crisis situation. In 2019, Unsah Jan staff trained nearly 140 individuals using proven curricula like SafeTALK, Question.Persuade.Refer., and Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training.

Through these programs, people learn to help those at risk stay safe and seek help. Unsah Jan teaches participants to recognize and engage people who might be having thoughts of suicide and to connect them with community resources trained in suicide intervention. The program also collaborates with community partners like Boys and Girls Club Alaska, the Suicide Coalition, and the Anchorage Youth Development Coalition to promote suicide prevention awareness.

To learn more about Unsah Jan, visit the program webpage.