10/04/2011 08:19 am ET Updated Aug 03, 2012

How a Group of Teenagers Helped Reduce Suicide In Alaska

A region long battered by some of the nation's highest suicide rates has some welcome good news -- a drop in deaths credited in part to teenage students.

When the Teck John Baker Youth Leaders Program began a few years ago, eight students in the Northwest Arctic Borough School District took their lives during a year-long period ending in August 2009, said Michelle Woods, the program coordinator.

That's about 15 percent of the 54 people who killed themselves in the entire region of 7,500 residents for the entire decade, according to numbers from the state Bureau of Vital Statistics. Those suicides made the Northwest Arctic the deadliest region for suicides in Alaska -- and possibly the entire nation -- during that time.

This year, not a single suicide has rocked the school district, Woods said. Officials there are praising the 100-plus students trained to root out depression among their friends and lift morale in their villages.

The key? Kids are more likely to tell friends about their problems than anyone else, said Brett Kirk, a former leader in the program until he graduated from high school this spring.

Now 18 and a freshman engineering student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Kirk joined the effort because he was tired of seeing people in his hometown of Noatak, a village of 500 about 60 miles north of Kotzebue, trashed by drugs and booze.

"I wanted to help my community," he said. "I've seen a bunch of things that most students my age shouldn't see. I've seen my personal, close family members wasted out of their minds or high on a substance. It disgusted me, really, and I wanted that to change."

Noatak hasn't seen many suicides, but a student killed himself a few years back. "I saw the kid the day before," Kirk said. "And the next day he was gone."

While he was involved in the program, Kirk and other leaders organized annual community meetings to talk about alcohol abuse and suicide. They hosted basketball tournaments and movie nights at the gym. They hung posters around town urging kids to stop partying and get to class on time.

Sometimes they sat and talked with students who were involved in a break-up or who had lost a family member. Sometimes they recommended a counselor get involved, but that doesn't always help, said Kirk. "Sometimes a peer-to-peer interaction has more effect," he said.

Youth interaction is critical to the program's success, because kids are more likely to speak with someone their own age than a family member or adult, organizers said.

In the past, elders visited schools to talk about suicide, but they often failed to make a connection, Kirk said. Sometimes the elders scolded students in Inupuiaq, but the message was often lost because many kids don't speak the language.

"It's sometimes hard to understand (elders)," Kirk said. "Sometimes they have a nasty voice, but truthfully, what they say, it's really important. If students could get the message behind their stories, it'd be a lot simpler."

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Read the complete story only at Alaska Dispatch.