Teressa Baldwin’s uncle committed suicide when she was only 5 years old. While she did not fully grasp the significance of the event, she did know that something had gone very wrong. Now, she’s an advocate for Native American mental health and suicide prevention.
“As a young person I remember knowing what suicide was, being aware when someone had committed suicide in the community because there was just an overwhelming feeling. We saw it differently as opposed to someone dying from natural causes,” she told ICMN.
The struggle to come to grips with that event, as well as other suicides including that of a close friend, led Baldwin, at 16, to start a campaign to address suicide among high school students. “My family never really truly talked about it till I got older and started my campaign. Then my mother actually sat down and talked about it. So it was a very long time before I was able to address my own feelings,” she said.
Baldwin, Inupiaq, was raised in rural Alaska about 30 miles above the Arctic Circle, the second of eight siblings. Kotzebue, the largest city in the region, has a population of just over 3,000.
When she was a senior at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, Alaska, a good friend lost his battle with depression and committed suicide. In response, Baldwin founded Hope4Alaska, a nonprofit to prevent suicide and raise awareness about Native American mental health. She visited 30 high schools talking to kids about her experience and how to recognize the signs of an impending suicide attempt.
Alaska had the second highest rate of suicide in the nation in 2010, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. The rate for Alaska Native people is twice that of non-Natives, with Alaska Native men between the ages of 15-24 having the highest rate for any group in the country, averaging of 141.6 suicides per 100,000 people each year between 2000 and 2009, according to the department.
“My main message was that there’s hope,” she explained, “that this feeling is temporary and you’re able to get over it and there’s another side to this.” But her message has changed as she has learned more about historical trauma. “Now I know that when you’re in the middle of historical trauma [you feel like] you’re the only one that’s experienced this and it’s not temporary. It’s more of a multi-generational issue.”
She also advised kids that getting help was a sign of strength and that elders are the source of that strength. “We’ve always come back to the point where young people are very comfortable talking to their elders. It’s just a matter of whether or not they have those relationships formed. One of the main things that I really am driven to do with my career is to try to create access to mental health programming that takes the perspective of elders and also traditional knowledge—I think that’s something that’s missing,” she said.
On May 4, Baldwin was a featured panelist at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Awareness Day event in Washington, D.C., an event devoted to raising awareness about children’s mental health.
Baldwin described how the reticence around talking about suicide that she experienced in her own life was common. “I started my campaign to change the dialog around suicide in the state of Alaska. When I first came to different villages around Alaska, the elders were kind of frightened about me talking about suicide because they thought that if we talked about it their children would commit suicide more, which is not really the case. If you talk about it and have an open dialog, you’re able to really understand about the physical and the mental needs of these children,” she said.
Baldwin, now 23, graduated from the University of California San Diego in June 2016 with a major in sociology and a focus on science and medicine. She has been in Washington, D.C., on a fellowship and returned home at the end of May to take a position with Maniilaq Association, a collaboration of 12 Alaska Native villages, which provides virtually all social and health programming in northwest Alaska, as well as hospital facilities, and serves about 8,000 people in the Northwest Arctic Borough and the village of Point Hope. Baldwin, who wants to start her professional career close to home, will serve as a planner and grant writer for the organization.
Baldwin serves as a legislative fellow at the National Congress of American Indians, sits on the Board of Directors for the National Indian Child Welfare Association, and was recognized by President Barack Obama with a Champion of Change: One Voice Can Change the World award.
In the end, Baldwin wants Native people to recognize that “mental health rests with us. For generations our people in different tribes across the nation have [maintained] Native American mental health in a traditional way and it’s always worked. It really starts with us, whether we want to change the stigma of mental health in our communities.”