The state has issued a call to action by recently updating its suicide prevention plan.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough struggles with suicides as much as the rest of Alaska.
The Statewide Suicide Prevention Council responsible for updating the plan included specific measures to be evaluated to ensure an effective system and allow for further development. A number of strategies outlined in the five-year plan are already offered in the area. But widespread education of the issue among district students and the general population is much needed, officials said.
Tess Dally, a Peninsula Community Health Services emergency services clinician who focuses on suicide risk assessment, said she believes the Peninsula experiences a high number of cases.
“It’s prevalent enough that risk assessment is a full-time job for me,” she said.
According to the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistic’s most recent data, the borough’s rate was 22.7 suicides per 100,000 people in 2007.
According to the plan, the challenge starts with wellness promotion; a person’s overall health conditions can increase or decrease the risk of suicide. The following steps are prevention, crisis intervention and postvention, a created term referring to suicide response.
Suicidal thoughts are complex with many triggers affecting people of all ages. Alaska has the highest rate of suicide per capita in the country. The rate of suicide in the United States was 11.5 suicides per 100,000 people in 2007. In 2007, Alaska’s rate was 21.8 suicides per 100,000 people. The rate of suicide among Alaska Native peoples was 35.1 per 100,000 people in 2007, according to Vital Statistics.
The first goal outlined in the plan is acceptance of the responsibility by Alaskans for preventing suicide, and the second goal is effectively and appropriately responding to people at risk.
The goals declare suicide prevention is placed on local communities.
A main component of the plan’s strategies includes removing the stigma associated with suicide. Senior services providers have reported that it’s often difficult to engage seniors because of the stigma.
Often people at risk wait too long to ask for help because such a mark of shame exists, Dally said.
“There are all kinds of beliefs about having suicidal thoughts, such as the person’s belief that they’re weak,” she said.
And when people do ask for help they’re often apologetic and express discomfort due to the belief they’re wasting people’s time, she added.
Erin Neisinger, a school counselor for six small villages throughout Alaska, said she feels that if more people discussed suicide then the stigma would diminish.
“I know it can be daunting, but that’s why it’s so important that the educational tools are out there,” she said. “It’s important to be able to know what to do and say, and with those tools people will talk about it more. It’s OK to talk about.”
Peninsula Community Health Services staffs a 24-hour emergency hotline through its Cottonwood Health Center at 907-283-7511.
The plan says communities can develop their own anti-stigma efforts, or participate in ongoing efforts like Mental Health Awareness Week and World Suicide Prevention Day.
Signs of suicide include substance abuse, social withdrawal and recklessness.
Dally said people experiencing thoughts of suicide tend to isolate themselves, which can make intervention difficult.
“If a friend is isolated people sometimes take it personally,” she said. “They make the assumption that they don’t want company, but often that’s the most important time to check up with them and see if they’re OK.”
A strategy outlined under the second goal of the plan is prioritization of prevention screenings by health providers. Peninsula Community Health Services practices initial and ongoing assessments for all patients.
“When a person comes in it’s part of the screening process regardless of the services they’re coming in for,” Dally said.
And other providers in the community, such as Central Peninsula Hospital, are good about referring patients who exhibit signs of suicide or self-harm, she said.
Perhaps a more troubling statistic is that the suicide rate is highest among young Alaskans, aged 15-24. It is the second-leading cause of death among Alaskans aged 10-24, according to the Prevention Council.
Neisinger said 30 percent of her average workload is counseling students with thoughts of suicide.
Officials agree detecting thoughts of self-harm among students is difficult for many reasons. Perceptions about teens, generational differences in communication and personal relationships are drastically varied.
“Youth are going to talk to their peers before they talk to adults,” Dally said. “They communicate in ways that adults aren’t familiar with. They’re texting, and they’re on Facebook.”
However, technology-savvy teens have an upper hand in accessing resources. Neisinger expressed the need for such knowledge. Stopsuicidealaska.org contains data, training and links to other websites.
Peers play a large part in combating suicide, as many accompany friends seeking help at Peninsula Community Health Services, Dally said.
But a key strategy in the five-year plan emphasizes the need for youth also to seek out healthy and appropriate relationships with adults in their community.
“In general, youth should feel safe going to adults they know, and we have a responsibility to help them when they’re in crisis,” Neisiger said.
Senator Bettye Davis, D-Alaska, is sponsoring Senate Bill 137. If amended, the bill would expand funds for youth suicide awareness and prevention training.
“A school district, regional educational attendance area, and the department shall annually provide youth suicide awareness and prevention training approved by the commissioner to each teacher, administrator, counselor, and specialist,” the bill reads.
Overall, school teachers and counselors on the Peninsula are in tune with students’ personal dilemmas, Dally said.
The five-year plan contains many strategies both big and small in hopes of reducing Alaska’s rate of suicide. The prevention council and its partners will provide annual reports on the status of its strategies.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.