Hooper Bay takes action to prevent more suicides

Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2003

HOOPER BAY (AP) -- The Bering Sea village of Hooper Bay is being rocked by two suicides and two attempts within a week.

The village survived even a worse spate of suicides five years ago, but officials are hoping an aggressive counseling campaign will prevent more this time.

Hooper Bay resident Mary Bell, 18, killed herself on Feb. 7 in Mountain Village where she had gone to live with her sister. She chose to use a .410-gauge shotgun.

The next day in Hooper Bay, 22-year-old Tyler Joseph shot himself but survived. But a week later, Joseph's younger sister, Denise Joseph, 19, tied one end of a short rope around her neck, the other to the door handle at the post office, then sat down and asphyxiated.

Her body was found the next morning.

Police had been busy the night before with alcohol calls and a suicide attempt by a 17-year-old girl who had overdosed on pills and slashed her wrists.

The incidents are on top of others that already was causing suffering in the town, said Hooper Bay Police Chief James Hoelscher. Earlier in February, Floyd Rivers, 32, died of hypothermia while attempting to walk the 20 miles from neighboring Chevak. Last September, a 20-year-old man shot himself to death.

''It's a lot for a small town to go through,'' Hoelscher said. ''It's amazing that a lot more people's spirits haven't been broken by this.''

Hooper Bay, a growing village of 1,300 that lies about halfway down the coast between the mouths of the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, is familiar with the problem of suicide. From 1995 to 2001, 11 people killed themselves, according to the state vital statistics bureau.

Suicides peaked in Hooper Bay during a 13-month period in 1998 and 1999, when five high school students took their own lives.

That grim period was on many people's minds this month as the bad news piled up day after day, said Ted Baer, counselor at Hooper Bay School, which has 400 students.

''They were very afraid it was going to be happening all over again,'' he said.

Having been through it before, Hooper Bay knew how to cope, said Sandra Mironov, deputy director of health services for Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., the Bethel-based nonprofit that serves the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

''The community realizes how fragile they are, and they are very good at reaching out and asking for help,'' she said.

Response to the request for help came quickly. The regional health corporation, which normally has three mental health and substance abuse counselors in Hooper Bay, sent more, Mironov said. The Lower Yukon School District flew in additional counselors for students.

Students had one-on-one and group counseling, and healing circles were held. Adults had similar opportunities, and village residents packed the school gymnasium one night last week to discuss activities to aid the entire community.

The mental health efforts also dovetail with a new program funded by the Bethel-based Association of Village Council Presidents that aims to use Yup'ik culture and tradition to increase self-esteem.

Reducing suicide rates in rural Alaska will be an enormous challenge. The suicide rate among all Alaskans is frequently among the three highest in the nation.

In 1999, the last year for which data were available, the rate among Alaska Natives was double that of white Alaskans and triple the national average, according to the vital statistics bureau.

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