Our view: Suicide in Alaska

The numbers are grim. Alaska continues to suffer suicide rates much higher than the national average -- in the period 1996-2004, the overall Alaska rate ran as much as 80 percent higher than the U.S. average. In the same period, the rate for Alaska Natives was spiked at almost 500 percent higher than the U.S. average.

The numbers have not changed much since.

This isn't news and it isn't good.

But many Alaskans are not dwelling on the grim today, which is World Suicide Prevention Day, and part of Suicide Prevention Week in Alaska. Instead they're focusing on ways to restore hope, build relationships and, in the words of Lowell Sage of Kivalina, "mend the net."

Sage is a member of the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council, a pastor of the Friends' church and on the Maniilaq Behavioral Health Advisory Committee in Northwest Alaska.

"An elder told me that we need to mend the net," he said Thursday. "When you are mending a net, you tie one piece to another. In this we build strong relationships with one another. ... In order to build strong relationships, communication is a key factor. We need to start talking again."

"Hard work needs to be reinstated in our family units once again. We used to be a people where every person in the family had a responsibility. Everybody had a job, or some kind of chore to do. That made us feel like we're part of the family. It gave us purpose in our lives. That's one part of mending the net I feel is important."

Kate Burkhart, the prevention council's executive director, said the state is "recognizing that communities are developing their own customized solutions to their issues." There is more than one way to mend the net, because there is more than one cause for the hopelessness that leads to suicide. There may be a lot of mending to do against the unraveling of broken families, cultural dislocation, isolation, drug and alcohol abuse, joblessness and other elements that gut a sense of purpose and steal the power of hope.

But while communities work for their own solutions, the council has heeded complaints of help providers, who say that often they've received information and training, only to return to their corners of the state where they feel alone or only marginally in touch with others in their field.

Now the state has a Web portal at StopSuicideAlaska.org, as well as a Facebook site at the same address, where individuals and groups can go to share information and ideas about prevention, where Alaskans can reach out to one another over long distances.

Tom Chard, a planner with the Alaska Mental Health Board, said the portal and Facebook site aim to use the power of the Internet to replace isolation with connections among help providers, those affected by suicide and those who have attempted or contemplated it. Alaska is one of most wired states in the nation. Lowell Sage's call to "start talking again" can start in a Kivalina family and reach to every corner of Alaska.

Restoring hope, helping people have a sense of purpose, is work for the long haul. Our suicide rate won't plunge overnight. Often it's hard to see progress.

"It's an intractable issue," Burkhart said. "It's easy for people to think we're not doing anything, because it's still a problem."

But many Alaskans are doing something every day to build connections, show care, kindle hope.

That's vital.

In 2009, Susan Soule, a mental health consultant and former state suicide prevention coordinator, said that a common thread among suicidal people throughout Alaska is the perception that nobody cares, they're not heard, their lives don't matter.

One message Alaskans should make clear this day -- beginning in our own families and communities -- is that every life does matter. Plenty of good people do care, and there's hope in that.

BOTTOM LINE: Alaskans need to come together to mend the net. And let's remember these numbers for those who need help and those trying to help: Alaska Careline: 877-266-4357; National Lifeline: 800-273-8255.


Article sourced from Anchorage Daily News