Young's words salt wounds, reflect need to think differently about suicide
By Chris Cavanaugh
Alaska Dispatch News
Chris Cavanaugh, M.Ed. is a therapist and lifelong Alaskan. He has been working with youth and families from all over Alaska since 2006 and is currently in the first year of the UAA Clinical-Community Psychology doctorate program.
OPINION: Young's comments don't help, but the deeper issue is our need to think differently about suicide -- and create the care that prevents it.
The victims of suicide are countless. The individual, mother, father, spouse, children, brothers, sisters, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, classmates, siblings, teachers, principals, clergy, hunting partners, colleagues ... on and on and on. The suicide of a loved one is shattering for families and communities. It is more so when their U.S. Congressman fingers them for the death.
Let's get beyond the appropriateness of Congressman Don Young’s conduct at Wasilla High School on Tuesday. We have seen this dog and pony show before. The crass, hard-hitting congressman speaking the unfiltered truth, and if you don’t like it, well that’s your fault. Sort of like, when your child takes their own life, you were not supporting him enough. When your student dies, you did not care about her enough. When your father dies, you did not love him enough.
By that logic, children of a depressed parent should be more supportive, behave better, do more dishes, else they can be responsible if their parent takes his or her own life. Victim-blaming can be defined as imparting the responsibility of a wrongful act on the victim: when something bad happens to someone, making sure they are held responsible for the problem: “Well, they were asking for it.”
I was not in the auditorium for Rep. Young’s assembly. But the sentiment is clear, and unfortunately, a classic example of blaming the victim. Examples of victim-blaming are rife throughout modern and ancient history. In Alaska, we use it to disguise negative attitudes toward many minorities, racism toward Alaska Natives in particular, in dialogues like this:
“Well, maybe those Alaska Natives wouldn’t have it so bad if they would just get a job”
“There aren’t any jobs to have.”
“Well, they should just move somewhere that has jobs.”
“And leave behind their culture and identity?”
“They don’t even paddle kayaks anymore, they have motorboats, how much do they really care about their culture”
Tell that to Bernadette Adams, the first woman on record to take a whale, or Devlin Anderstrom, the Yakutat youth who addressed the Elders and Youth Conference in Tlingit on Monday.
As Alaskans we take pride in our sense of independence and free will. We cherish our inalienable rights. We encourage frontier ingenuity and perseverance. So it becomes natural to slide into this mentality of I am responsible for me, and you are responsible for you, especially when something bad happens to you.
For you psychology buffs out there, this is an attribution error. That is when something happens and all external or environmental dynamics are eradicated from the action. It is sort of like saying, "If you can make a free throw in your driveway, you should be able to make one to win the championship tournament in a packed gymnasium with 1 second left." (If you are thinking I should read or watch "Moneyball," I just want to say this: Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson).
Perhaps it is time to look at how our policies and priorities are impacting us. While our prison population increased 97 percent over the last two decades , in 2014 it is nearly impossible to get a depressed teenager with Denali KidCare (Medicaid) Insurance in to see a therapist, and that's in Anchorage -- good luck in outlying areas. Perhaps the family should support them better by making more money and having better insurance.
If anything, the events that unfolded at Wasilla High on Tuesday show us that depression and suicide in Alaska are not a rural problem, not a family problem, not a regional problem, not an ethnic problem and not a school problem. They are not even a Don Young problem.
Piling unfounded responsibility onto grieving family and friends is the problem. Blaming a caring and compassionate community for a tragic event is the problem. The way we think about suicide is the problem. The way that we think about each other is the problem. The disappointing part Tuesday was that Young said what he said with no perspective. Blaming the victims is the status quo. It’s like making sure the lights are off in a dark room.
So what to do? It is impossible to stop all suicides. But, allowing ourselves to move forward each day and let the status quo maintain is not acceptable. Continuing to pile on hurting people (whether you know it or not) is not productive.
So change something. Talk to your family. Talk to your friends. Get to know your neighbors. Care about them. Care about someone you don’t know. Help someone, even if you think they should be able to do it on their own, and they are choosing not to. Maybe they can’t. Maybe you can.