Alaska issues plan to fight rising tide of suicides
Alaskans are being urged to take on a greater role in preventing suicides among their friends and loved ones, in a newly issued five-year plan reviewing both the challenges and achievements associated with the issue.
The Statewide Suicide Prevention Council released its report Thursday on how to reduce the state’s per-capita suicide rate, among the nation’s highest in recent years at more than 20 per 100,000 people. Men, Alaska Natives and younger Alaskans have seen even higher suicide rates than the statewide average -- trends seen in four young people's deaths in Hooper Bay during just 16 days in 2015.
The six-point plan, "Recasting the Net," is organized around the metaphor of “casting the net upstream” by focusing resources upon prevention of suicides at an earlier stage of intervention. One of those resources, the Alaska Careline – a statewide phone number to help people through emotional difficulties – has seen a sharp rise in calls in recent years.
“The number of calls to Careline has gone up from several thousand in 2012 to more than 15,000 in 2016,” the report read.The plan begins with a call for Alaskans to “accept responsibility for preventing suicide” by understanding that suicide is preventable and modeling “healthy, responsible lifestyles” for younger generations. Communities are encouraged to “cultivate environments of respectfulness and connectedness,” as well as host conversations and information exchanges about suicide prevention, and the state is asked to strengthen support networks for people recovering from grief, mental or physical illness.
Trauma and substance abuse are among the risk factors addressed by the plan’s second point, which asks Alaskans – in particular those who provide services to veterans and senior citizens, as well as spiritual guidance – to be aware of signs suggesting suicidal thoughts as well as the resources available to those at risk of taking their own lives. The strategy also asks Alaskans to “come together in reconciliation and healing to restore what was lost due to historical trauma and colonization.”
Suicide prevention also takes the form of safely storing firearms according to the report’s third point, which notes that nearly two-thirds of Alaska’s suicides from 2009 through 2015 involved the use of guns. Alaska State Troopers offer free gun locks, and prescription drugs and liquor can also be kept locked up if necessary. The report also encourages state and local groups to enhance their cooperation in suicide-prevention efforts.
Ensuring Alaskans’ access to statewide services for suicide prevention, treatment and recovery is the report’s fourth main point, with a plethora of resources (summarized below) available to people with suicidal thoughts and their loved ones.
Survivors of suicide attempts still need help, according to the report, and “not every community in Alaska has a survivors’ support group.” To that end, the council recommends that the state expand its outreach for post-suicide support to communities upon request, and that Alaskans consider options ranging from healing circles to therapy as they’re available.
"Suicide prevention looks differently in every community," said Brenda Moore, a member of the council. "We cannot go in with a cookie cutter. We have to work with communities; they have to be intricately involved in saying what's going to work for their community, and involved in how they want to work on the issue."
The final point of the report emphasizes the need for better data across the state regarding suicides, noting that some deaths are never investigated and that the state’s tools to report suicide often rely on subjective measures.
“The current surveillance system relies on third party reports of suicide attempts and certifications of cause of death,” the report read. “Suicide attempts that do not result in treatment at an emergency department are not counted. Suicide attempts that are attributed to ‘accident’ are not counted.”
Some of the resources mentioned in "Recasting the Net" include:
The Alaska Careline at 877-266-HELP is available for Alaskans who need emotional support. In addition, the Institute on Aging offers a Friendship Line for people over age 60 at 800-971-0016.
Mental Health First Aid (907-264-6228), the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (907-729-3799), SafeTALK (907-729-5260) and Alaska Gatekeeper QPR (907-465-8536) all provide training on recognizing suicidal thoughts and deterring people from acting on them. In addition, the state Department of Education and Early Development hosts electronic learning courses on suicide prevention on its website.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has an overview of the National Drug Take Back Initiative on its website.
“Alaska’s Strategies to Prevent Underage Drinking,” a report compiled by the state Department of Health and Social Services, covers various approaches to the issue. DHSS also maintains a list of community mental health centers across the state.
Heather Hintze contributed information to this story.
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