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Faculty & Staff Honors

UMass Faculty Leading Part of Alaska Youth Suicide Prevention Study

Dr. Lisa Wexler, associate professor of community health education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences and a veteran researcher in Alaska Native youth suicide prevention, is leading part of a new five-year, $4.25 million grant from NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health to identify the most effective ways of preventing suicide among Alaska Native youth. One of just three awarded nationwide, the grant to the University of Alaska Fairbanks creates the Alaska Native Collaborative Hub for Resilience Research; Dr. Wexler will receive $400,000 over the five years to support her research.

[Photo: Dr. Lisa Wexler]

“It aims to bring people together from all the 16 tribal health regions in the state, which has never been done before, to talk about what people in the trenches on the tribal level and the clinical level know about suicide prevention,” says Dr. Wexler. “Also, we’ll do research that will feed into a digital tool to help communities identify protective factors at the community level that can also help people at the individual level. Another exciting thing is that it’s a statewide effort that will lead to new relationships, to make new sense of and guide future research.”

She adds, “My job is to make the research as relevant as possible, and to step back and let others in the Native communities take the lead. I will make myself smaller and let others be big in this.” Alaska has one of the highest suicide rates in the country and suicide is the leading cause of death for male Alaska Native teens and young men, she notes.

Once a therapist in the region and now a community health educator who has been working there since 1995, Dr. Wexler will work with people in 65 rural Alaskan communities to look at cultural, not just traditional, continuity and community members and how institutions are working to support young people. For instance, she said, “We will consider how schools work with community to make sure they are respectful and that they include elders. This is important because schools were the primary colonizing force.”

Cultural continuity refers to factors such as whether the community has a building for cultural activities, whether there are women in leadership roles, whether law enforcement officers are available and can be counted upon to “do the right thing” when needed. A handful of such factors have been identified by other research studies as being associated with lower suicide rates, Dr. Wexler explains.

The researchers plan to develop a digital tool that will ask about these factors in 65 different communities, such as whether schools are open and inviting, and collaborating with parents and community, and if not, the tool might offer suggestions on actions to address the missing elements. The “Alaska Community Resilience Mapping Tool” will offer practical, user-friendly and scientifically supported suggestions, the researchers point out.

Dr. Wexler says, “This has never been done before, where we look inside those communities and see how they are working, look at the neighborhood norms in place and focus on protection. We want to have research-supported results. People in tribal health organizations, law enforcement, social services and tribal government have not gotten together before as active partners in guiding and making sense of the research. This center will help to make that happen.”

Dr. Wexler’s co-principal investigator is Dr. Stacy Rasmus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Dr. Rasmus says, “The answers to our staggering statewide suicide rate are in our communities and Alaska Native cultural values. By collaborating with tribal organizations and local practitioners, we will find out what strategies are working and practical ways communities are solving one of Alaska’s most heartbreaking problems.”

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