This month, Governor Bill Walker recognized the fact that Alaska’s suicide rate is dangerously high by instituting a statewide Suicide Prevention Week, and local schools and agencies were quick to get on board.
Walker signed the week into being in a Sept. 4 proclamation which encouraged Alaska residents to take Sept. 7-13 to “reach out to those who may be struggling with thoughts of suicide.”
In 2010, Alaska had the second highest suicide rate in the country, a rate double the national average, according to a 2013 State of Alaska Epidemiology report. Meanwhile, the state’s total population was estimated to be only about 736,700 in 2014 by the U.S. Census Bureau.
“I’m excited,” said Jeff Parker, an emergency services clinician for Peninsula Community Health Services of Alaska. “I know this was the week for the national effort, and considering our population, our suicide rates are really horrific.”
The report found 79 percent of the state’s 1,325 suicides documented from 2003-2011 were committed by men, and that for every 5 degree change in latitude, the incidence rate for suicide was 18 percent higher statewide. This incidence rate rose 52 percent for every 5 degree change in latitude for populations off the Alaska road system.
Simply put, suicide rates rise the father north one goes. Combine that with a lack of Vitamin D and exposure to prolonged seasonal daylight and darkness, and there’s a recipe for distressed body clocks and sleep schedules, Parker said.
“I’ve been in Alaska for four years,” Parker said. “There are definitely some little bits of spins on mental health problems and depression in the state … and I think partly it’s the seasonal changes.”
With sleep deprivation comes poor judgement, and those who suffer from lack of sleep are more prone to “thought disorders,” Parker said.
Parker helps people on the Kenai Peninsula who struggle with thoughts of suicide by performing risk assessments and referring them to the agencies where they can find the most help, whether that be the Emergency Room at Central Peninsula Hospital or the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. Peninsula Community Health Services also has a 24-hour crisis hotline for people to call, at 283-7511.
Local law enforcement is doing its part to tackle the state’s suicide rates. Kenai Police Chief Gus Sandahl said his department responded to at least 23 calls for suicidal or potentially suicidal people this year so far. While the department doesn’t have a community outreach program specific to suicide, Sandahl said officers are familiar with how to refer individuals to hotlines, health providers and even offer people rides to the hospital.
“It’s often from a friend or family member reporting to us a concern for a friend or a relative who’s having some thoughts of self harm, and they’re concerned about their safety,” Sandahl said. “We have enough of them in a year that any officer that’s been on for two to three years has dealt with a number of them and is comfortable with the discussion with the individual, and knows the steps to take to try to get them help.”
Upon arriving on the scene, an officer will try to verify as much evidence that points to self harm — in the form of pills, access to weapons, etc. — as possible to decide what to do next, said Lt. Dave Ross. One thing officers always focus on is being sensitive and respectful of the person’s wishes, Sandahl said.
“Our officers are going to approach the person with compassion and respect, with the goal of getting them help,” he said. “That’s part of our role when we do make contact with them, seeing if they’re receptive to getting help.”
Laura Beeson and Leslie Fazio, counselors at Kenai Central High School, have capitalized on Walker’s proclamation by involving the entire school in a project to bring awareness to suicide called the “Wall of Hope.” The activity, put together by the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council, requires each student to anonymously write down three reasons to be hopeful on cards or sticky notes, to be hung up on a wall for all to see.
The wall at Kenai Central has been a positive experience, the counselors said. Covered with colorful notes about everything from favorite foods and music to family and college aspirations, the project was a way for students to learn about suicide in a format other than a lecture, they said.
“It’s a little lighthearted, but then there’s also some that are very serious, and you can really tell that either the student has experienced it, maybe close to home, and so they really put some thought into what they were writing,” Beeson said. “This was a real practical activity for students to be able to address the suicide topic in a non-threatening way.”
Beeson and Fazio also use a risk assessment form when students come to them with suicidal thoughts. Their contact with these students, however, is limited to those the counselors are alerted to by concerned friends and those who feel comfortable enough to walk into their offices. The Wall of Hope could be a bridge to reach the students who might be struggling with suicidal thoughts but are not ready to approach a counselor, they said.
“Anybody who walked by, they wanted to find theirs and show their friends,” Fazio said. “I think we should do it every year, because if we’re going to have any kind of impact on this suicide rate, we need to start talking about it and engaging in prevention activities.”
While increased awareness is a step in the right direction, Parker said the solution to Alaska’s high suicide rate will be multifaceted. Walker’s acknowledgement of the problem by designating a Suicide Prevention Week at the state level is good, but increased work on the part of Alaska Native health organizations and the positive health service repercussions that would come from Medicaid expansion would do even more, Parker said.
Parker said the best thing concerned family members and friends can do to contribute to the solution is to simply stick by the person they are worried about. Taking hints or assertions of suicidal thoughts seriously is key, he said.
“The interesting thing is that if there’s sort of a perfect storm of factors that kind of come together, they are going to attempt, oftentimes because they are at their wits’ end and they don’t know how else to solve the physical and emotional pain that they’re in,” Parker said. “When it comes to suicide and the outcome of a permanent death, you can never be overprotective.”