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Suicide plagues Alaska Natives
Anchorage Daily News


April 10, 2007

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Despite two decades of effort by state and community leaders, Alaska Natives continue to kill themselves at alarming rates, a new study reports.

In fact, they seem to be committing suicide as often as they did in the late 1980s, when Native leadership, state officials and others acknowledged the crisis and vowed to solve the problem.

"It's a crisis, and if we don't start doing something really soon, it's only going to get worse," said Bill Martin, a Southeast Native and Alaska Statewide Suicide Prevention Council chairman.

Among other things, the study reports 58 of every 100,000 Natives killed themselves in 2004. That's the highest rate since 1986, according to state records on the council's Web site.

The rates were also high in 2005 - 52 per 100,000 - but improved in 2006 to 42 per 100,000.

For years, the national suicide rate has consistently hovered around 10 per 100,000. In 2004, the last year figures are available, it was 11 per 100,000.

"The figures command immediate attention from society and the state as a whole," said Lanny Berman, with the American Association of Suicidology in Washington, D.C., which helped with the study.

What's happening? State and tribal officials said Natives battle the same basic afflictions they faced two decades ago, with new factors thrown in, such as methamphetamine.

Alcoholism remains rampant. And young Native men are culturally adrift, caught between the traditional subsistence world and newer demands of a cash-based lifestyle. They're searching for identity and hope in areas where jobs and educational opportunities are few.

The behavioral health system has grown tremendously to battle depression, substance abuse and other suicidal factors, experts said. But it doesn't reach enough into villages where per-capita suicides are most rampant.

The study was conducted by the Alaska Injury Prevention Center and other groups on behalf of the state Division of Behavioral Health, Alaska Mental Trust Health Authority and the suicide council. It was released last month.

Calculation methods might have caused differences between 1980s rates and today, but not enough to change the fact that Native suicides for the last three years appear to be as high now as they were then, said Ron Perkins, the injury center's executive director.

In the study, rural Alaska posted the highest numbers of suicides. Two Inupiat regions in Northwest Alaska topped the charts. The regions, around Nome and Kotzebue, had seven to eight times more suicides during the three-year study period than the 2004 national average.

Also high are suicides by males 30 and younger.

As part of the study, the center analyzed the 426 Native and non-Native suicides that occurred in Alaska between Sept. 1, 2003, and Aug. 31, 2006.

Researchers interviewed family members and friends of 56 of those victims to spot trends that might prevent future suicides. Among other things, they learned that nearly half went on drinking binges in their last month. Two-thirds expressed hopeless thoughts or a wish to die.

Seventy-eight percent of respondents felt suicide victims didn't get enough professional help.

Silence is part of the problem, Martin said.

The study included little feedback from Natives - they were reluctant to talk, said Perkins. Family members and friends of only 13 of 159 Native victims sat for interviews.

It's a tough issue in small villages where many people intimately live, said Martin, originally from Kake. But people must talk.

Tribal leaders should make suicide their priority and work with regional Native organizations and the state to provide public awareness campaigns to prevent suicidal factors, he said. They should increase cultural pride by creating traditional dance groups, Native art classes and other programs.

Parents, the front lines, should battle depression and alcoholism in children.

"That's where it's going to stop," he said.


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