Unalaska Organizations Battle Mental Health Stigma During Suicide Prevention Awareness Month
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. And over the past few weeks in Unalaska, organizations like the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association (APIA) and Unalaskans Against Sexual Assault and Family Violence (USAFV), as well as the Qawalangin Tribe, have stepped up to help spread awareness.
USAFV Director M. Lynn Crane said that at the local nonprofit, which provides a number of resources for the community, including crisis intervention, shelter, and legal advocacy—to name a few—mental health is something staff confront and think about daily.
"Everything we do here is so interconnected," said Crane. "Domestic violence, family violence, child abuse, sexual assault—they all have mental health components to them for both the survivors and the perpetrators. So I think it's all very interconnected."
Due to heightened isolation from the coronavirus pandemic and the amount of devastation the Unalaska community has seen in the past couple of years with the loss of several young adults, Crane said it's easy for people to feel disconnected. And she said, in a small isolated place like Unalaska, it can be especially difficult for people to feel comfortable reaching out for resources.
"I think it's hard for people to ask for help, period," said Crane. "But in a community like this, where if you park your car outside of USAFV or you park your car outside of the behavioral health providers' [office] at APIA, you assume people are going to know why you're there. And there's such a stigma attached to getting help for these issues, when there really shouldn't be."
APIA Youth Services Coordinator Dusin Newman said that stigma is something he also sees in the Unangax̂ culture, and something he is working to combat.
"We have this stigma as Native men that we have to bottle everything up and we can just deal with it on our own," said Newman. "And that's not the right way to do it. Unangax̂ men were built in community before colonization. We would go to our families for help when we're dealing with hard times."
Newman—who is based out of Anchorage, but is originally from King Cove—is in Unalaska to work with the Qawalangin Tribe on two Unangax̂ cultural build projects: an iqyax̂—Aleutian sea kayak and a banya, or steam bath. The builds are part of APIA's "culture as prevention" approach to mental wellbeing, according to Newman.
He said both projects—like other cultural practices such as dancing—are inherently tied to mental health, community, and also spirituality.
"Like the spiritual aspect of dancing, we also believe [that] a long time ago—and these are things that we're still trying to reclaim—everything had a spirit to it, everything was alive," explained Newman. "And so the iqyax̂ itself is a being that's alive when it's created. Once it's finished, it is its own being and you hold it to the highest respect and you could look at that as your life. You hold yourself in a good manner, you hold yourself high in respect."
Newman said the building process of both the iqyax̂ and banya is a chance to consider the strength of the community, but also to reflect on personal strengths and past experiences. The banya—once constructed—said Newman, is also a communal space to share insights and tips, traditionally about topics like hunting, cooking, or growing up.
At the beginning of the month, USAFV held a challenge on Instagram to similarly help the community focus on their mental wellbeing and to promote suicide prevention awareness. The event was called the "It Will Be Okay Challenge," and participants were asked to post a picture of themselves representing the theme of the day. Those themes included topics like "staying active" or "getting crafty."
While the challenge only lasted one week, Crane said there are many ways to continue fostering mental wellbeing like working out, journaling, or eating well, but she also said, it's always important to reach out for help if needed.
"If it gets to the point where your anxiety is impacting your ability to function or you're not sleeping, or your thoughts are so dark that they're scaring you, it is really important to seek professional help," said Crane. "It's easy for someone to say, 'Well, you'd just feel better if you do this.' But sometimes when you've been feeling down for a long time, you kind of burn these pathways into your brain. And it can be kind of tough to get out of that rut."
Although it can be tough to feel comfortable asking for help, especially in a small community, Crane said that USAFV's hotline is a great resource, and texting options are available from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily at 359-1500. USAFV's crisis hotline can also be reached 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 581-1500. For more information, visit their website.