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18 Suicides in 18 Months: Jeff Yalden Shakes Things Up in Alaska

18 suicides in 18 months. Think about that. 

Kotzebue, Alaska, “The Gateway to the Arctic,” lies 550 miles northwest of Anchorage. The city is tiny, with a population of less than 3500. It has two food stores, a fire department, a police department, a hospital, a hotel and a couple of restaurants. That’s about it. 

The first thing you notice is that Kotzebue is quiet.  Think of the National Geographic TV show Alaska State Troopers, where they fly into remote villages on small on small bush airplanes, the only way in.  That’s what it’s like. 

But the area has been rocked by 18 suicides in 18 months. 

The City of Kotzebue and its Tribal Council hired me for two days as a consultant to stir things up and to help the community leaders with a plan of action to prevent another suicide from happening. I have been in the trenches of suicide prevention and mental health for 27 years. Although each community is different, I felt that I was prepared to handle any contingency that might come up. 

Little did I know that this would become one of the hardest community visits of my career. Little did I know that I would call for a change of leadership at the school and that the superintendent would lie in front of everyone, deflecting the attention on her and putting it on me.  

In the above VIDEO, you can see the email from the hospital, proving she lied and fabricated a statement that 10 people went to the emergency room as a result of my visit. 

Over the course of my career, it’s been an honor to speak to youth and school communities. Thank you for your support. I save lives and help communities in some very trying times – but it isn’t always easy.  

Over the years, I have learned a great deal about schools and administrations, teachers, staff, and of course the communities and the varying degrees of parental involvement. Because of my experience, I can walk into a school and tell you within minutes how the day is going to go.  

Upon my arrival at the airport I was greeted by Nicole Stoops, executive director of the City of Kotzebue’s Tribal Council. She has a great heart and it was obvious that she truly cared about her community and the trauma they have been dealing with. We were of the same mind on many of the issues at hand, and it was a pleasure to work with her.  

Nicole drove me around the community, which took about ten minutes. 

Day one officially began with a meeting and breakfast. We knew we had a lot to do. The next stop was Kotzebue High School to visit with teachers, counselors, and school administration.  This is a normal procedure I recommend and I think it’s a responsible and significant piece to my visit. I always want to hear from faculty and staff what is on their hearts.  

FIRST IMPRESSIONS  

We arrived on time, but only met with the high school principal, who wasn’t sure why we were meeting in the first place. We spent about 15 minutes talking in his office.  Originally from Maine, he and his wife retired here after traveling.  My questions covering things like teen mental health, suicide prevention, the well-being of the teachers and staff and more were met with very “safe” answers that didn’t really tell me anything. 

I asked about teacher morale and what they do for their teachers as far as training and support, and he said, “nothing.’  That was alarming and odd, because I heard the next day that the teachers get out an hour early twice a week for teacher in-service or development time. Two hours a week and they do no training or support activities?  I had a problem with this. 

The school community is so influential to the well-being of our students, staff, parents and families.  If the school is not on the same page as the community, there is a problem. My office sends out a great deal of information to the schools I am scheduled to visit, such as brochures and letters to parents and teachers. We came to find out that whomever handled this in the administration failed to forward any of this – and nobody knew anything about the assembly that was about to happen at one o’clock. 

We asked for a morning assembly because it’s important not to leave the staff or community to pick up the pieces after my talk if anyone is triggered.  

We left the school disappointed that nothing we planned with them was happening the way it was supposed to.  

At this point, I wanted to visit the people in the community who were heavily involved with the trauma of these suicides and the impacted families. We tried to visit the police department, but after waiting for somebody to answer the door for fifteen minutes in 17-degree weather, we didn’t stay. 

We then met with Chief Brian and two of his awesome firefighters at the Kotzebue Fire Department. This was an amazing visit, and I got a lot of insight into the reality of what was happening. Next, we visited the Maniilaq Association, which provides health, tribal and social services to residents of Northwest Alaska. It represents 12 federally recognized tribes – and we met with Tim and Bree, who head up the suicide prevention efforts in Kotzebue and surrounding villages. Thankfully, they shared incredible information and answered all of my questions.  

THE ASSEMBLY 

It was time to head back to the high school for the school assembly.  Grades six through 12 were coming in.  I wasn’t hired by the school. This happens a lot when an outside organization brings me in and they invest, but the school doesn’t take it seriously or even ask questions.  Sometimes you feel like you are interrupting their day and it sure felt that way coming here. 

As I was setting up in the gym, the principal walked in to give me the microphone.  I asked him how his day was going, and he said, “Good. Busy, Another day,” and walked out. I thought, “Well, nice talking to you then.”  That was it. 

As the students continued to arrive, the principal approached me and said, “Before you talk, I have a student that wants to ask his girlfriend to the prom.” I didn’t quite know what to say, but that happened and it was pretty amazing. Watch the VIDEO and see for yourself. It was a special moment.  

As I said, I wanted to be very careful not to trigger any students and leave them to go home, and I would have preferred a morning assembly for that reason. But I was also hired to do my job, and that was to help a community that was plagued by 18 suicides in 18 months.  

Knowing that I was with a large Alaska Native population, I approached my talk a little differently. I had to earn their respect and trust. As an outsider, that could be difficult in such communities. I feel that I succeeded in this, and that the assembly was going well. 

The young man and his girlfriend wound up being the students I worked with. I thought it would be a good interactive session with these two because of the moment they shared at the beginning of the assembly. 

In my talks, I ask the students what they see when they look in the mirror – and this time I asked the young man’s girlfriend if she saw the person inside as beautiful as the world saw her on the outside.  She said no. Sadly, this is a typical response – and I talked about the fact that we can’t experience change in our lives if we can’t acknowledge the truth.  

I brought these young people out to the gym floor, in front of their peers, and talked about life – the good and the bad – how we can be going about our lives when situations pop up that stop us in our tracks, such as failing a test, trouble with parents, a fight with a friend, breakups or the loss of a grandparent. Most of our youth don’t want to think of loss or hardship, let alone talk about it in front of their peers, so I kept it light and asked if they ever lost a goldfish. This got a laugh. 

Things didn’t stay light for long.  

I asked I asked the young man if he’d ever experienced hardship in life that he would like to share and was floored by his answer… 

“My father told me to kill myself.” 

Wow. The only thing I could respond with was, “Can I give you a hug?” 

In the VIDEO, you could hear the students as they collectively reacted in disbelief. 

I am a professional. I had him and what he said – but I also had 450 students who also heard what he said. I needed to address this situation carefully.  

I asked him sit down for a second and turned to his girlfriend, who was standing all alone in the middle of the gym. I asked her if she knew what his father had told him, and she said yes. I followed that by asking her if she had any hardship she would like to share.  

“I attempted suicide.” 

Now I had what she said, what he said and 450 students in front of me. I asked the young lady if I could give her a hug and I sit her down. 

My friends, life happens – and it’s not fun sometimes.  We go through hardships, but in my message,  I talk about being a victor instead of a victim. I talk about victim or a victor. I talk about forgiveness and acceptance. A key point I try to make is this: When life knocks you down, you’ve got to pick yourself up. Part of picking yourself up is asking a trusted adult for help and talking about your feelings. 

By this point, I went back to the young man. A teacher came down to let him know he wasn’t alone.  I’m a huge fan of our teachers, coaches, and school staff.  They play such an important role in the self-esteem and learning of our children each and every day. I used this moment to address teachers and thank her for being present with him. 

I sat with the young man for a while, and as we got up I talked about moving forward, using the analogy about the windshield versus the rear view mirror: The windshield is wide, giving us a clear view ahead – while the rear view mirror is to take a quick look at where we have been. Sometimes pain lasts forever, but everything we experience shapes us.  

As I brought him forward to his girlfriend, I asked him to help her as I helped him.  He walked over and gave her a hug.  I asked them both if they knew what each other was going through and had gone through, and they said they did.  I pointed out how good it was that they were talking to each other and being open.  

But we weren’t finished yet. 

I addressed the 18 suicides – a staggering and heartbreaking number. I said, “The problem is that nobody is talking.”  

I praised the young couple for setting an example and talking about their feelings and said that we all needed to be willing to share. Usually, people ask something like, “How are you doing,” and that sets up a safe answer – “I’m fine,” which can really be taken as, “Leave me alone. I don’t want to talk about it.” 

A better question to ask is, “How is your heart,” because it’s a much more difficult question to avoid.

I use the question, “How are you doing?” and that that means, I’m fine, leave me alone, I don’t want to talk about it.  I say, “A better question to ask is ‘How is your heart?’ because that is a more difficult question to avoid. 

This part of the talk ended with a big round of applause. Most everyone had tears in their eyes, and you could see the pain in the hearts of the students.  

I feel my message was on target and that the assembly went well. I had 45 minutes left, but I wanted to end because that moment really triggered a lot of kids. I decided to send the students back with their trusted teachers so that they could debrief and talk about what they had just heard in a meaningful way.  

As I ended, a young man was crying hysterically. I took him into the boys’ locker room to talk because I didn’t want anyone to see him in that state. He was new to the community, and what I said in the assembly triggered the loss of his dad.  I wanted to introduce him to Chief Brian from the fire department.  I thought if the two met, at least this young man would know that he had someone there who cared… 

But when I went out to find Chief Brian, I couldn’t believe what I saw. There were maybe 60 middle school students crying in the bleachers. This was an emotional meltdown, with only a few people on hand to deal with it – the high school principal, some aunts and uncles, myself, Nicole and the fire chief. I went to each student and praised the ones who were supporting and comforting those who were crying.  

FALLOUT 

With about 15 minutes left before school let out, the high school principal told me that he heard  there were more than 100 kids crying all over the school.   

I rushed out into a hallway and asked an adult what was going on. She told me she didn’t know why this was happening. I explained that I was the speaker and was there to help. 

“I think you have done enough. We don’t need you,” she said.  

I was dumbfounded. She was the school counselor who didn’t attend the assembly because she had forgotten about it. I found out that only four teachers had attended.  This is disturbing and just plain wrong. Kotzebue was traumatized. Why should these students buy into the assembly if the staff wasn’t buying into it themselves? 

Nicole, Chief Brian and I couldn’t understand why nobody was there to deal with the crisis that unfolded before our eyes. The superintendent’s office was right next door, so Nicole and I decided to pay her a visit.

It didn’t go well, as you can see in the VIDEO.  

The superintendent defended the school counselor and praised her efforts to be where she needed to be in light of the community’s trauma.  

We asked why nobody had received the information we had sent, and she became very defensive. Finally, after hearing her deflect and avoid responsibility, I leaned forward and asked her at what point would she stop making excuses and take responsibility – knowing that she had a job to do and that lives depended on it.  

She has been the superintendent for 20 years, and while I appreciate her commitment to education and this community, she wasn’t taking responsibility. She said that her teachers and staff were not mental health professionals, and this was not their responsibility.   

I understand that teachers and staff are not mental health professionals, but they are some of the most influential adults in the lives of our young people. They know how our kids are doing and notice the red flags in a heartbeat. If they miss these red flags, it’s harder to get at-risk kids to the mental health professionals. 

I asked questions about teacher morale and teacher retention. She told me that she didn’t need to answer those questions. She also suggested that I needed to “do my research” and then come back and talk to her.  

For the record: I take my work seriously and I always do my research.  

Little did she know; I did my research and that morning read an article from the Anchorage Daily News talking about teacher retention and the crisis they are in.  When coming to a community to do my job, believe me, I take my responsibilities serious and I do my research.  

Did I mention that the meeting didn’t go well? 

At the parent and community program later that evening, about 15 people showed up. The organizers were disappointed in the turnout, but I wasn’t. I speak to whomever wants to come – but I also knew that the information about the program didn’t get sent out. Regardless, it was a productive talk.

DAY TWO 

On the second day, we got some very complimentary feedback from students and teachers about the assembly. The teachers that weren’t there the day before were only able to comment on what the kids had to say.  

We met with community leaders in a conference room at the local hospital.  About 20 leaders were present. I was grateful to be able to share my assessment of what I witnessed so far. 

I talked about the school administration’s failure to communicate and their blasé stance on the very issues I was brought in to address. I called for a change in leadership, including the superintendent and the high school principal.  

In the lower 48 states, we are making a huge push for social and emotional learning and understanding that we have to address the mental health of our teens.  If you touch the heart, the mind will follow.  Education is being challenged.  We are losing teachers at an alarming rate and we need to address retention and the mental well-being of our students. Mental health, teen suicide and the opioid epidemic are quickly becoming the largest public health crises of our time. If we ignore these issues, we’re going to have a much bigger problem to deal with.

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THE LIE, REVISITED 

An important part of my job is to give a complete assessment of the situation at hand. 

The superintendent was at this meeting, and I asked her to speak. It’s all in the VIDEO.  

She couldn’t even refer to me by name.

She stated that she got a message that after my talk, ten students had to go to the emergency room. I stayed quiet because I knew this wasn’t true. If it was, I would have heard about it sooner. Before she walked out, she made a few more comments about my visit being a disgrace and that she had to apologize to her staff about it.

Her fabricated statement may have cost this woman her job. It certainly brought a letter from my attorney.  I’ve never in my life experienced this before. 

Right away, a couple of hospital administrators checked on what she said and came back saying that her allegations were fabricated.

Check out the photo on the right of an email from the Maniilaq Health Center, proving that what she said was a lie. This is completely unprofessional and disgraceful.  

After appearing on a local radio show, it was time for some food and debriefing.  

This was a tough two days, but we did what they needed done. I feel that I lived up to my responsibilities as a professional. 

WHAT THIS COMMUNITY NEEDS TO DO 

  1. Immediately stop all grant funding. There is no accountability for where or how it is spent.

  2. Terminate the contract with the professor from UMass Amherst, who says we shouldn’t be talking about suicide because it gives the students ideas. This professor has not been present in the community and is giving them Band-Aids in the form t-shirts and ice cream parties – stopping them from thinking about the bigger issues in the moment.

  3. Stop having so many committees and task-forces and come up with ONE Official Task Force. Hire ONE person to oversee it and put out a definitive plan of action to be carried out by volunteers to create relationships with school staff and get a social media campaign going, where the message is seen consistently across platforms – and start working on a budget immediately. 

  4. These grants are giving people jobs and titles, but no accountability or responsibility. If there are no clear-cut job descriptions and expectations to go along with these titles, there’s a problem.

I am working on other additional suggestions, but in the meantime,  something has got to be done to address the role of the school and their support of students and staff. Letters have been sent to the school board after the superintendent’s fabrication. 

After 20 years, new, proactive leadership is needed – leadership that cares about the well-being of staff, teachers and students. Change needs to come to the morale, the culture, and the spirit of the school community – and everybody needs to get on board.  

It shouldn’t be that hard. 

I was hired to do a job, and it’s my job to save lives. Some of you may not like me, but when you have 18 suicides in 18 months and you hire me to come to your community to deal with the trauma – don’t expect to see Mr. Nice Guy. I will hold you accountable. I will tell you if you’re not doing your job. I will change things or at least tell you what needs to be changed.  

Mental Health is very near and dear to my heart. We can’t avoid it. We have to talk and be supportive. I think our schools have to do more with less and I am sorry to say this. I believe our schools are essential to the success of our students and families, our community leaders and the community itself. It takes a village to raise our families, and schools are the foundation of our success. I can’t thank our teachers and school staff enough for what they do each and every day. 

Thank you for having me, Kotzebue. I’ve been getting a lot of comments from people who weren’t there, and some great feedback from some who were. In the end, we are either part of the solution or part of the problem. Which part are you? 

Suicide is a permanent action to a temporary situation. We need to get comfortable being uncomfortable and talking about suicide. We need to remember that it’s always OK to ask for help.  

Jeff Yalden is a suicide prevention and teen mental health expert who works with school communities in crisis. He’s the author of, “Teen Suicide: The “WHY” Behind America’s Suicide Epidemic” and a TEDx Talk Speaker on Teen Suicide. Visit his website at www.TheJYF.org