Pastor Susan Boegli knows first hand how difficult winter — particularly the holiday season — can be for people living with depression. The leader of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in the Mendenhall Valley said she has dealt with periods of hopelessness throughout her life.
“I’m very aware from my own personal history of experiencing darkness at the holiday,” Boegli said. “Not only because of the lack of light, but because it feels like the world is going on without you.”
That’s why the pastor hosted “The Longest Night” — the church’s first nondenominational service for people struggling during the holiday season — on Dec. 21, the winter solstice and longest night of the year.
The service brought people together for uplifting words and “beautiful music,” said Boegli, who is also the secretary of the National Alliance on Mental Health Juneau Board of Directors. Representatives from Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies, NAMI Juneau and Catholic Community Service Hospice spoke about hope in the midst of difficulties at the event. She said she hoped people would take one simple message away with them.
“Sometimes where we are in our journey is a very dark, deep place,” Boegli said. “But the message is: ‘We are not alone.’ That’s the good news. When people get that message, ‘I am not alone,’ that becomes their saving grace.”
Lindsey Kato, community-based services coordinator for the Juneau Suicide Prevention Coalition, spends her days making sure people don’t feel alone — and educating the community on what to do if someone they know is at risk of committing suicide. She said Alaska experiences an uptick in suicides from October through January, as people cope with the darkness and the many emotions that accompany the holidays.
“The holidays can be a really difficult time — you’re expected to be happy and it can be a really unhappy time for a lot of people,” Kato said
Alaska carries the highest per capita suicide rate in the nation, NAMI Executive Director Dov Gartenberg said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it was the second leading cause of death in the state for people ages 10 through 34 between 1999 and 2010, and the leading cause of death for Alaskans ages 15 through 24 in 2010.
In 2007, Alaska’s rate was almost double that of the rest of the United States, coming in at nearly 22 per 100,000 people, compared to the national average of 11.5, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Statewide Suicide Prevention Council. This statistic can’t be linked to any one cause, Kato said, but lack of mental health resources in remote villages plays a big part. Access to mental health services is known to cut down suicide rates, Gartenberg said.
“I talk to villages — they maybe have one police officer, they have no counselor,” Kato said.
Due to Juneau’s community being small and tight-knit, the Juneau Police Department doesn’t often release suicide statistics, Kato said. Calls to JPD weren’t returned by press time.
But there’s a fine line between educating the public on the state’s high rates and normalizing suicide, Kato said. Rather than dwelling on Alaska’s statistics, focus should be turned to the many resources available to people who are feeling hopeless, she said. Juneau has no shortage of help for those who are thinking about committing suicide, and the people who love them.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize the vast amount of resources available,” Kato said. “We have people who are struggling, but we also have people who are reaching out for help.”
The most important resource for Juneauites is Alaska Careline Crisis Intervention, she said. A call to the Careline will connect a person who is contemplating suicide with someone trained to help them through the crisis. This confidential service is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the phone number is 877-266-4357. More information can be found online at www.carelinealaska.com.
The Juneau Suicide Prevention Coalition offers free training to any organization or business that wants to educate its employees on recognizing suicide warning signs, and other issues surrounding suicide, Kato said. Training can be tailored to fit any time constraint — she’s led sessions as short as 15 minutes and as long as six hours, she said. Call Kato at 523-6506 for more information.
The coalition works with students in Juneau’s middle and high schools on recognizing the warning signs of suicide, and what to do if you or someone you know is at risk, Kato said. She’s also working to build a student group at the University of Alaska Southeast to focus on suicide prevention.
The Juneau Suicide Prevention Coalition’s website offers a comprehensive list of resources for individuals and families, including a list of mental health professionals in the area. The coalition’s 21 recommended resource books on topics surrounding suicide — all available at Juneau Public Libraries — are also listed on the site, which can be found at www.juneausuicideprevention.org.
If you think someone you know might commit suicide, Kato has simple advice — ask them about it. It’s an uncomfortable subject, but opening the door to conversation might be exactly what they need to keep going, Kato said.
“It has been proven to be the best way to prevent a suicide,” she said.
• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.