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Youth take on tough public health topics

March 1st, 2013 | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

For Kayla Nungasak, a quiet 13-year-old Barrow student, standing up in front of a group of middle school students and talking about suicide is a bit intimidating, but not too intimidating to stand in the way of her desire to try to help others.

Nungasak, along with three other Barrow students and four students from Wainwright, have signed up to present to several Arctic communities on public health-related issues as part of a program designed by Ilisagvik College in Barrow.

Nungasak's topic of choice isn't an easy one either. She chose to talk to students about suicide prevention.

"I've seen and heard of so many people attempt suicide," she said. "I wanted to help people out and give them things to try."

The public health presentations are part of a program headed up by Mirri Glasson-Darling, the Northwest Arctic Health Education Center's Healthcare Careers Coordinator. It's the program's second year, and Glasson-Darling's first year leading the effort. Last year, some seven college-age students presented to youth, while this year, the program was opened up to those in high school and middle school, too.

Each student puts together a presentation on a public health topic, from nutrition to smoking cessation, under the tutelage of instructor Julie Serstad in Barrow and Frank Pickett in Wainwright. They research their topic, choose a program to create a presentation with, like Powerpoint, and craft a 10-minute presentation they think will help students understand their topic better.

The idea behind the program is partly to engage students in public health topics, but also to introduce them to the public health field, Glasson-Darling said.

"The idea is involving the community and creating a generation of students who feel like they can be advocates for public health and really make a difference and be active in their community," she said.

It's challenging to find health care providers from other areas who are interested in staying in Alaska for any length of time. People from the Arctic might be interested in training to become public health professionals if they knew more about the field.

"We want people to be working in healthcare who have a better understanding of the communities here," said Glasson-Darling. "We want our students and youth to know that these are not jobs just for Westerners or people from Anchorage."

While Ilisagvik College doesn't offer the entire program to get your nursing degree, it does offer many classes to get students started in that direction, she said.

For these students, those choices may be a way off, but presenting to villages such as Nuiqsut, Atqasuk, Wainwright and Point Lay offer an opportunity to see some areas they haven't seen and spread a message they feel is important. Also participating from Barrow are Justina Tracey,14 who is doing a marijuana presentation, and Nuala Kelly,18 whose topic is also suicide.

This year, the instruction went beyond the basics of presenting to youth, and incorporated a cultural component, bringing in a teacher to talk about Inupaiq values and how they relate to public health.

Nungasak, the youngest person to participate thus far, said she has learned that people need to learn to ask questions if they think their friends are struggling, and not be judgmental if someone is considering suicide. She said her research said that you need to learn to take care of yourself by doing your favorite activity, like listening to music.

But she admitted it's a big problem, probably made larger by the fact that in small villages there is little privacy and lots of gossip. Still, she said she wanted to take on a topic that was really important, and one where people might listen. Not like quitting smoking.

"People never really listen to that," she said.

The program is funded in part by a First Nations grant for $16,648, which will cover air travel to the villages and supplies, as well as T-shirts for participants. An independent film maker, Nick Brandestini, from Switzerland will be traveling with the students some of the time for a documentary called "Arctic Youth."

Glasson-Darling said they hope to continue the program in years to come, offering more students the opportunity to gain some experience with public speaking, research and the field of public health.

"This is something that really affects everyone everywhere," she said.


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