As the nights grow longer and winter settles in across the north, a team of health researchers is using a “community mobilization” approach to translate research into practice for an Alaska Native youth suicide prevention program in 15 remote Alaska towns.
The intervention, “Promoting Community Conversations About Research to End Suicide” (PC CARES) was developed by University of Massachusetts Amherst associate professor of community health education Dr. Lisa Wexler and colleagues, who pilot-tested the program in 10 far-flung Native Alaska communities. They recently received a five-year, $3.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health to expand the project, “re-envisioning it to adapt to a new region,” as she explains.
[Photo: Dr. Lisa Wexler]
PC CARES seeks to respectfully provide Native communities with a practical method for translating scientific research into culturally relevant ways to reduce suicide risk factors and increase safety, help-seeking and support.
“So much suicide prevention focuses on mental health services,” she says, “but in an area where there are no roads and a mental health professional may visit only one or two days a month, putting more effort into that kind of resource is not really helpful to the community. PC CARES offers a way of translating research into community practice on their terms, so they are better equipped to use research in ways that are helpful in their communities.”
Village facilitators teach service providers, family and friends “what works” from prevention science, host discussions to adapt this information to their local community and cultural contexts, and work together to take actions to support culturally relevant suicide prevention and health promotion.
“We try to offer practical, applicable information and tools that can be put into practice in a variety of ways to promote wellness and reduce risk,” Dr. Wexler says. “We try to bring some basic information to youth groups, elders, community organizers, tribal leaders, law enforcement and others who have social capital in the community, grandparents, friends, aunts and uncles, in learning circles to learn together both from the scientific literature and from each other. Social diffusion does the rest.”
PC CARES seeks to give a whole community a chance to learn something, reflect on it, talk about it among themselves and put new ideas into practice.
“People in the community are interested in coming together to learn and work toward prevention. It is important that the learning circles themselves are facilitated by local people, and that they are designed so that everyone can learn how to be a part of wellness. Mental health counselors can learn more about local culture and practices of rural Alaska Native communities, and community members can learn what tools are effective according to prevention science. Bringing people and ideas together in this way can lead to small and huge efforts for innovative actions, and we are excited to begin.”