Cultural Identity, Mental Health, and Suicide Prevention: What Can We Learn from Unangax Culture?

Sean R. O’Rourke, Nadine Kochuten, Chantae Kochuten and Katherine L. Reedy

Abstract

Many Indigenous peoples in Alaska have high suicide rates. The Unangan/s, however, have a rate reported to be below those of other Alaska Natives. Using data derived from literature review, autoethnography, and correspondence with Unangan/s and clinicians who serve them, we explore the validity of Unangax suicide statistics and the relationship between this people’s unique multifaceted—yet integrated—identity and mental health. We propose their low suicide rate stems from having a clear perception of their integrated cultural identity and the ability to fulfill their culture’s standards of personhood through engagement in culturally congruent activities (specifically, commercial fishing and Russian Orthodoxy) and cultural revitalization. To aid in suicide prevention, we advocate for culturally relevant mental health services, programs that facilitate cultural-identity clarity, and culturally congruent economic development. Future research should ascertain local conceptions of personhood and suicide and empirically examine interactions of cultural-identity clarity, culturally congruent activities, and psychological well-being.

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