Last month, the University of Alaska Fairbanks announced a $4.25 million initiative to tackle youth suicide in Alaska Native communities, with a focus on resilience and solutions. But one program in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District has focused on this type of community-based prevention since its start in 2008, and it now has been showing results.
Promoting peer-to-peer mentoring, the school district’s Youth Leaders Program engages students and their communities, challenging them to come up with solutions to bullying, isolation and suicidal tendencies. In the years since the program’s start, the school district has seen a dramatic drop in student suicides. According to Michelle Woods, the program coordinator until she retired two years ago, nine students died by suicide in 2007. By 2009, it was five.
The premise of the Youth Leaders Program is simple: tap a number of student leaders in each school and give them the training to help their peers during times of distress. Anyone can be a Youth Leader — there are currently over 120 in the school district, which has around 2,000 students in grades kindergarten through 12th. Over 90 percent of the district’s students are Alaska Native, spread out among 11 villages in Northwest Alaska that range in population between 150 and 3,200.
Students also nominate two of their peers who they think are approachable if students have an issue at school or home. These students are offered positions as captains, who help teach Youth Leaders at their schools. Both captains and Youth Leaders are trained in the TALK suicide prevention program — short for “Tell Somebody,” “Ask,” “Listen and Reflect” and “Keep Them Safe.”
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