Skip to main content
Updated:
Original:

Suicide claims student in land of the midnight sun

PORTLAND, Ore. - Suicide claimed another young soul in October when a young
Alaska Native man studying at the University of Alaska at Anchorage took
his own life. Even as a candlelight vigil was held so those left to grieve
could commemorate his passing, powers that be at the university reviewed
policies and asked hard questions.

Rates of suicide in young adults has tripled since the 1950s. During the
2003 - 2004 school year, there were six suicides at New York University
alone, and the University of Iowa counseling service saw 20 percent more
students in September than it did in that same month a year ago.
Furthermore, experts say that numbers of students seeking counseling tends
to peak midway through the fall semester when academic pressure is on the
rise and sunlight is on the wane.

Stress over grades and depression arising from lack of sunlight might not
be the only factors influencing Alaksa Native youths, but long dark nights
are surely significant contributors. According to Lakota Sioux Director of
Alaska Native Studies at UAA, Jeanne Eder, Alaska has one of the highest
suicide rates in the country - double the national average, with Alaska
Native male youths most affected. Indian Health Service statistics state
that rate of suicide for Native Alaska males, age 15 - 24 is 5.6 times
(1,565) that of non-Native Alaskan males (275). Eder added the rate for
Native male youths in Alaska is nine times that of young men throughout the
continental United States.

Dr. Eder respects the idea that some tribal individuals are reluctant to
give power to suicide by even saying the word. She, however, wants to
promote environments at the university that will support students that
struggle, and in order to do that, she thinks an open discussion is vital.

The "illusion is that the university is safe," said an article on suicide
in The New York Times. But institutions of higher learning are encountering
problems ranging from a lack of staff to limited funds for extended
treatment and drugs to simply the issue of how to get students that are
suffering to seek help. Many are trying creative solutions such as
employing graduate assistants as therapists and setting up workshops and
Internet chat lines, but often the report is that capacities are
increasingly stretched to the limit.

The University of Alaska at Anchorage offers mental health services through
its student health center. Eight visits per semester with individual
counselors are available at $15 per visit, although those unable to pay are
not denied service. The university also staffs centers through the
Department of Psychology which include counseling and support services
available on a short-term, low-cost basis.

While UAA is apparently meeting the needs of its general student body, key
findings of the Alaskan Natives Commission explain why the needs of Native
students go considerably beyond the norm. Alaska Natives' American College
Test (ACT) scores were 40 percent lower than non-Natives in 1989. There is
a lack of Native teachers and administrators at all levels of schooling in
Alaska, and as of 1990 only 24 Native individuals had earned degrees in
education from the University of Alaska. Additionally the ANC found that
while one in four non-Native suicides in Alaska were committed by 15 - 24
year olds, it was one in two in the Native community, with males
predominating. Finally the ANC pointed to the history Alaska Natives have
endured over the past century and how severe unemployment, alcoholism and
poverty continue to mark that experience.

Perhaps because Dr. Eder's field is history, she is more cognizant of this
legacy than most. When she had to learn about the recent death on her
campus from one of her students, she wondered where the administration at
UAA was. In a meeting with the new chancellor, Elaine Maimon, Eder stated
"I, too, am concerned about what you say is your philosophy of shared
governance, and I want to know when this university is going to make an
announcement about the death this weekend of an Alaska Native in the north
dorm."

Perhaps in part because the family did not want the circumstances
surrounding their son's death publicized, the Office of Student Affairs
waited five days to host a candlelight vigil at which the chancellor spoke
"in remembrance of friends and family we have lost." The chancellor also
penned a formal letter to students, faculty and staff about the
university's loss and how the administration was helping campus members
deal with their grief.

To Eder, Chancellor Maimon's well-intended actions are a step in the right
direction, but she would like to see more specific interventions in the
future. "I come from the Lakota culture," Eder said, "and we would have
called in Native elders to smudge the dorm and have an immediate venue for
students to talk. That didn't happen here."

Not without concerns over how her application for tenure would be
influenced, Eder initiated talks with the administration over how to
"indigenize the academy," as one of her Native colleagues at UAA termed it.
Eder and other Native members of the faculty and directors of Native
programs succeeded in getting their concerns voiced. "We had a very good
discussion relating to the lack of communication, the need for a
culturally-sensitive university response, the need for the chancellor to
have an Alaska Native Advisory Board, and the need for a university
commitment to its Alaska Native programs," said Eder.

It's hard to imagine how the emotion-laden years of adolescence might feel
to young Alaska Native man already suffering from cultural dislocation.
Even more, the question arises of how he might react to a competitive world
that all too often seems strange and uninviting. That those stresses became
too much for one such young soul at the University of Alaska at Anchorage
in October, however, is grievously and tragically clear. Should the
university follow through, and Professor Eder's ideas genuinely developed,
perhaps the young man who is gone now will be able to do in death what he
could not in life.