Suicides by Alaskans have been occurring more frequently in recent years, according to a new state report which chronicles Alaska’s high suicide rate and breaks down its toll.

The state Department of Health and Social Services released an information bulletin Wednesday on Alaska suicides from 2012 to 2017. According to the data, 1,103 people killed themselves in the state during that time period, making the annual suicide rate 29.2 people for every 100,000 age 10 or older – marking a 13 percent increase from the rate of 25.8 people per 100,000 from 2007 through 2011.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists Alaska as having the second-highest suicide rate in the nation just behind Montana, based on 2016 data.

The state’s northern and southwestern regions showed the highest suicide rates, at 50.5 and 50.1 people per 100,000 respectively, but Anchorage and the Mat-Su saw a 61 percent increase in suicide rates – the fastest rise in the state.

“Suicide occurred in higher rates among males, [American Indian/Alaska Native] people, and persons aged 20–24 years,” state officials wrote. “Although suicide rates remained highest in rural areas, rates increased in urban areas during 2012–2017.”

Firearms were the state’s most common suicide method according to the report, used in 63 percent of deaths. Hanging, strangling or suffocation accounted for another 25 percent, while 9 percent were the result of poisoning and 3 percent involved other means.

Deborah Hull-Jilly, the principal investigator for the state’s Violent Death Reporting System, said Wednesday that the report had been slated for release at the end of 2018, but last-minute preparations pushed its release until after the holidays.

“Our rate has over the last three years been creeping up again, and that’s always something very surprising given that we’re very diligent on working with the community and suicide-prevention specialists,” she said. “The question is, is there something else that’s a factor that we have not identified?”

The state’s ongoing opioid epidemic is one suspected element in the increase, according to Hull-Jilly. From 2015 to 2017, the state’s Suicide Toxicology Project has dramatically expanded forensic pathology reports in suicides, with the state medical examiner’s office examining alcohol and drugs found in 94 percent of victims’ bodies; a summary of the project’s findings was also released Wednesday.

“Alcohol use associated with suicide declined from 45 percent during 2007–2011 to 41 percent during 2012–2017; and conversely, opiate use increased from 12 percent to 15 percent,” state officials wrote.

Substances found in Alaska suicide victims tested under the state's Suicide Toxicology Project from 2015 through 2017. (From Alaska DHSS)

It’s not clear whether that reported 3 percent increase in opioid use reflects an actual rise in opioid-related suicides or an increase in its discovery due to the project. From 2007 through 2011, Hull-Jilly said, just 413 of the state’s 771 people who died in suicides were even tested for opioids.

“We’ve always associated alcohol with suicide, and we haven’t looked at any of the other drugs involved,” Hull-Jilly said. “We have a high number of Alaskans who use alcohol, but we have a better understanding of Alaskans who were using one or more drugs.”

Researchers are less surprised by the 61 percent increase in Anchorage and Mat-Su suicides, in part because the Mat-Su is the state’s fastest-growing region. People often travel to the area from other parts of the state or even Outside, Hull-Jilly said, which adds to its reported suicide rate.

“People come into the Anchorage and Mat-Su area for various reasons, either for permanent work or residency,” Hull-Jilly said. “It is quite a large increase, and that needs a little bit more research to look at why we had such a large increase during that time period.”

Many questions raised by the Alaska data still need to be reviewed, according to Hull-Jilly, including how frequently suicide victims might be combining or abusing substances, as well as possible links between substance abuse and mental health disorders in victims who exhibited signs of both.

“I think it all merits more in-depth evaluation,” Hull-Jilly said. “I will be doing that over the next 12 months, so there’ll be more to come. We’re just scratching the surface here.”

SUICIDE PREVENTION RESOURCES: If you are considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Stop Suicide Alaska at 1-877-266-HELP.

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