Alaska struggles with highest suicide rate in the United States

Posted: Friday, January 02, 2004

ANCHORAGE - When Robert Tokeinna was a teenager and got depressed, his mind turned to thoughts of suicide.

It is not an unfamiliar notion in Brevig Mission, an isolated Inupiat Eskimo village of around 300 people on the Bering Strait, about 75 miles from the Russian border. Several of Tokeinna's relatives committed suicide. The most recent was his uncle, who shot himself last year.

But now, at 21, Tokeinna tries traditional Eskimo dance when he gets down. And he is teaching other young people in his village to use dance to get them through the tough times, too.

"I didn't think dancing was preventing suicide. I thought it was just an activity. Now, I look at it differently," Tokeinna said. "It lifts up the spirit and makes the person happier."

The state wishes it had a thousand Robert Tokeinnas.

Alaska has one of the highest suicide rates in America - in large part because of the large number of Alaska Natives who take their lives.

Several factors are said to put Alaska Natives at risk, including the availability of guns; the gloomy isolation imposed by Alaska's pitiless climate and geography; poverty; boredom; alcohol and drug abuse; and the erosion of traditional values and culture.

Brevig Mission is reachable only by sea and air. During the long, dark Alaska winters, temperatures average 10 degrees below zero. Even in the summer, the sun warms Brevig Mission only into the 40s and 50s.

Nearly half the residents live below the poverty line, scraping by on the arts and crafts they make. Villagers used to raise reindeer for money, but that industry fell off in the 1970s. The mining industry is depressed. And in recent years, the salmon runs in western Alaska collapsed; only this year did the salmon return in large numbers to the rivers and streams.

Alaska had the highest suicide rate in the nation in 2000, when 135 people took their own lives. Alaska's rate that year was about twice the national average, at 21.1 suicides per 100,000 population. Alaska dropped to sixth in 2001. Figures for 2002 have not been released.

In 2000, the suicide rate among Alaska Natives was roughly four times the national average, at 42.9 suicides per 100,000 people. For Alaska Native males, it was more than six times the national average, or 68.5 per 100,000 people.

Jeannine Sparks, a guidance counselor at Wasilla High School and interim chair of a state council on preventing suicide, said every suicide, whether it was the suicide of her twin sister's husband in 1992 or the student who shot himself in 2001, affects people the same way.

"They deal with shame," Sparks said. "In villages where this has happened, there is a sense of loss and hopelessness. They need time to heal, and before they have time to heal, another one happens."

Two years ago, the state assigned a 15-member Suicide Prevention Council to develop a plan to prevent suicides. But the council's first coordinator resigned, several seats are vacant and the final plan is overdue. The task force is only now getting on track.

Also, the state health department recently got $248,000 in federal money to teach divorce attorneys, clergy and even bartenders how to recognize suicide warning signs. And the Community Based Suicide Prevention Program - a program around since the late 1980s - received $845,000 this year. Fifty-seven communities will receive grants.

"I think we are pretty close to not feeling hopeless. We know what to do and now let's do it," said the council's new coordinator, Susan Soule, suicide prevention program manager in the state health department.

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