Data shows youth suicide is higher in Alaska

Published: Oct. 3, 2020 at 9:06 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A recent Department of Health and Social Services report shows Alaska’s annual adolescent suicide rate is 3.2 times higher than the national average.

Alaska’s high suicide rate is a troubling fact long leaving the community and experts wondering why, and while every question may not be answered, experts are looking at ways to improve prevention and spreading messages of hope.

“We knew these numbers were coming,” said executive director of the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council, Beverly Schoonover. “We do the youth risk behavioral health survey for Alaskan youth, and those results came in prior to the data, and what that data showed was that Alaskan teens are having significant increases in students feeling sad and hopeless and considering and planning for attempting suicide in the last twelve months. So we know that Alaskan kids are struggling right now, but it’s not just an Alaskan trend, this is a nationwide trend.”

From 2016 to 2018, the most recent data available, the numbers show the national suicide rate increased by 17%. Here in Alaska, the most recent data shows 90 adolescent suicides took place from 2016 to 2019, and accounted for 11% of total suicide deaths in Alaska. Potential causes ranged from stressors within the family, to intimate partner issues and school challenges.

“If we started really looking at our school systems really putting a greater focus on social-emotional learning, not just at later stages of life, but really from K through 12 and really building in an understanding of human development, and problem-solving — what are the techniques? Again, we could have reduced risk of suicide within our adolescents,” said president and CEO of the Alaska Children’s Trust Trevor Storrs.

Another alarming finding: the suicide rate among Alaska Native youth nearly doubled from 2018 to 2019.

“We have seen our overall investment in behavioral health and improving substance abuse decreasing in our state. We need to find ways to increase that,” said Storrs. “Especially when we think about rural communities. As we leave the urban center, the access to those key services greatly decreases.”

According to Schoonover, a total of $750,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding is going towards suicide prevention programs and outreach in the state. In addition to investing more in our youth and youth programs, local experts say building positive relationships and cultural connections are vital for reducing suicidal thoughts, attempts, and deaths.

“The first thing that you can do is start talking about suicide, especially if you’re feeling it, or if you’re dealing with a family member or someone you know who had completed suicide is to just start talking about it, and really that’s the first step,” said Schoonover. “It’s a proven prevention strategy that if you’re feeling like that, and you’re talking about it, that’s going to help.”

Schoonover says there is hope, however. These numbers are all pre-pandemic. As far as this year goes, the statewide suicide prevention council anticipated COVID-19 would have a huge impact on suicide rates in Alaska, but so so far, preliminary data suggests suicide rates across all ages for 2020 could actually be lower than 2019.

“We had felt that there was going to be this huge surge in suicides for both adults and youth, and there was going to be a huge surge for Careline support. We haven’t seen those numbers,” Schoonover said. “This is still going on, but some of the preliminary numbers that we’ve looked at do suggest that the suicide rates are a little bit lower this year so far. We won’t know until next year what it looked like for COVID, but we are really tracking that information, and then I think a lot of decision making at the state about where funding is going is coming from those data reports.”

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, you’re encouraged to call the Alaska Careline at 877-266-HELP for free, immediate, and confidential help.

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