Veteran organization focuses on importance of difficult discussions surrounding suicide

An applied training course gives people the tools needed to potentially save lives
An applied training course gives people the tools needed to potentially save lives
Published: Feb. 23, 2023 at 7:50 PM AKST
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WASILLA, Alaska (KTUU) - Talking about suicide is difficult, and one group of students that gathered at Band of Brothers in Wasilla this week know exactly how uncomfortable the conversation can be.

The sad reality for Alaska, however, is that it’s a conversation that needs to be had, which is why Alaska Warrior Partnership hosted an Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) course.

The course consisted of two days of classroom instruction taught by the University of Alaska’s Center for Human Development. One of the instructors, behavioral health training coordinator Teagan Presler, said the ASIST model was developed by the Canadian organization LivingWorks.

“[It] is all about how to engage with somebody you think might be experiencing suicidal thoughts,” Presler said. “How to help them find a way to be safe for now, until you can get them connected with resources to hopefully keep them safe forever.”

Alaska’s suicide rates are alarming, as the state has one of the highest rates per capita in the country. According to the 2019 annual report for Alaska Vital Statistics from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, intentional self-harm was overall the fifth leading cause of death behind cancer, heart disease, accidental deaths, and cerebrovascular diseases such as strokes and aneurysms.

Despite the statistics, Presler said it’s still not being talked about enough.

“I think that the stigma and taboo are still very present and for a lot of people, it’s really hard to even say the word ‘suicide,’” Presler said. “We hear about it, we hear these statistics, right? You see the commercials on TV, you see the news stories, but that doesn’t sink in until it strikes close to home.”

Presler lost her best friend to suicide when she was 16 years old and has dedicated her career to awareness and prevention because of it.

“I remember in the aftermath just thinking that I don’t want anyone to ever feel the way I feel now,” she said.

The 13-participant classrooms largely consisted of veteran support organizations as well as active-duty service members, like Dylan Glickman. He’s getting ready to transition out of the military and is looking to get into a mental health field specifically geared toward veterans.

“It’s something that’s dear and near to my heart,” Glickman said. “I’ve wanted to kind of impart some of my experiences to them, so that they don’t end up making a fatal mistake and a permanent mistake.”

The group participated in a number of exercises that trained them to identify specific behaviors and how to approach various suicidal situations. After each exercise, the instructors opened the discussion to peer critique. While some participants were noticeably uncomfortable during some of the mock exercises — after all, it is an uncomfortable subject — the feedback from both instructors and peers was constructive and free of judgment.

“Getting out of your comfort zone, getting up there and trying to help a person that you may not have encountered before, may not have helped before, getting that practice under your belt is something that’s very helpful,” Glickman said.

While this specific ASIST class was hosted by Alaska Warrior Partnership and geared toward military members and veterans, the Cook Inlet Tribal Council offers the same course, as well as an abbreviated safeTALK course once a month in Anchorage free of charge. The organization has already scheduled its monthly training sessions through the rest of this year and is encouraging anyone to sign up.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or having suicidal thoughts, you are encouraged to call the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 for help.