Difficult discussion: Rate drops, but suicide remains a serious issue

Posted: Sunday, January 16, 2011

Despite the dark shadow of suicide continuing to loom over the state of Alaska like a menacing storm, the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council's annual report reveals a tiny ray of optimism shining through the clouds, especially for the Kenai Peninsula.

According to the report, the age-adjusted rate of suicide in the Anchorage/Kenai Peninsula/Mat-Su Borough area for 2009 was 16.7, which is a weighted average that reflects the rate that would occur if every region had the same mix of people of different age ranges. This means that for every 100,000 people in the area, 16.7 killed themselves in 2009.

This number is down from 2008 (17.6) and 2007 (20.7), but up from 2006 and 2005 (16.6 and 16.0, respectively). The precise reason for the volatile nature of the statistics is difficult to pinpoint, and some professionals working on the Peninsula in the field of behavioral health even report witnessing higher numbers of attempted and completed suicides as the years roll by.

"Since I've been up here there's been a definite increase in emergency services calls and suicide attempts," said J.R. Myers, the emergency services team leader at the Cottonwood Health Center in Soldotna. "I usually deal with two or three suicide attempts a week."

Myers, 48, has worked at the health center for the past five years, where he responds to hospitals, schools, juvenile detention facilities, and even Wildwood to perform mental health assessments primarily on people who are suicidal. The recipient of two master's degrees in human services and professional counseling, Myers also performed similar work in Libby, Mont., prior to moving to Alaska.

"I have to say the prevalence here seems to be much greater," he said, referring to the rate of attempted suicides in the Kenai/Soldotna area compared to Montana. "I don't know if it's attributable to the weather and light cycle patterns. A lot of people come here seeking their dream, but then they get up here and they're isolated and far from home, so they often become despondent."

The emergency services team at Cottonwood received 78 contacts in the last quarter (October through December) alone, and Myers stated he receives approximately one call a day.

"We see everyone," he said. "We see grade school children who are suicidal all the way up to people in their 90s. So it spans the whole gamut; there's really no demographic that's spared."

Myers also said many of the cases he handles involve substance abuse, noting "alcohol is often a factor in suicide attempts and suicidal gestures and ideations."

Indeed, the Alaska Suicide Follow-Back Study, which encompassed the 426 suicides that occurred in the state between 2003 and 2006, concluded that of the 33 percent of suicide victims tested for drugs and/or alcohol, 44 percent tested positive for alcohol and 48 percent for one or more other drugs.

As the link between chemical dependency and suicide is largely undeniable, many efforts are being made to combat this and other causal factors in the hopes of reducing the incidence of suicide on the Peninsula.

For example, during the fiscal year of 2010, the Department of Health and Social Services doled out 28 grants totaling more than $2.6 million to go toward suicide prevention programs in Alaska. Central Peninsula Hospital, in Soldotna, has received one of those grants annually for the past six years.

Kristie Sellers, the director of behavioral health at the hospital, reported they received $405,000 in grant money for July 2010 through June 2011. The amount increases a little bit each year, she said, due to the hospital's excellent performance. A testament to this fact: the department only received $260,000 when they first accepted the grant six years ago.

Programs combating substance abuse and mental health disorders see a good portion of that money; for instance, the hospital offers free depression screening on National Depression Screening Day in October, when staff members go to Kenai Peninsula College and offer screening and referrals for any member of the public who need those services.

"Technically that's preventing depression," Sellers said of the program, "but we know that suicide and depression are highly connected to each other."

Other projects, such as relapse and youth drinking prevention classes, are also aimed at eliminating some of the underlying factors that oftentimes contribute to suicide attempts.

The Statewide Suicide Prevention Council concluded its report by clarifying that they "deliberately avoided coming to conclusions or providing answers," and instead hoped their findings would encourage conversation and awareness of a problem that continues to plague Kenai, Soldotna, and the state of Alaska as a whole.

"If you see somebody out there who's in distress, who's lonely, who's acting unusual, reach out," Myers said. "Try to make a connection. This is really not an individual problem; it's a community problem.

"I think that we all have a responsibility to reach out when people are down," he added, "because when people are in the throws of depression they often cannot reach out themselves."

Karen Garcia can be reached at karen.garcia@peninsulaclarion.com.

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