Alaska suicides rise with the sun

Report contradicts long-held belief that suicides increase during the darkest months

Posted: Tuesday, March 30, 2004

ANCHORAGE - More Alaskans take their own lives as days lengthen and temperatures rise, according to a new report based on 13 years of statistics.

The new numbers are a stark contrast to the often publicized belief that suicides go up as the dark months descend.

Alaska has consistently been near the top nationally in suicide rates for years. In 2000, the state had the highest rate in the nation - 21.1 suicides per 100,000 people - nearly twice the U.S. rate of 10.7, according to a 2003 report by the Alaska Statewide Suicide Prevention Council.

Susan Soule, program coordinator with the Alaska Division of Behavioral Health, said the state's rate dipped to 20.9 in 2002, according to the most current data available. Still, "we run roughly twice that of the rest of the country," she said. "For Alaska Natives, it tends to be twice the state rate."

Ron Perkins, executive director of the Alaska Injury Prevention Center, compiled 13 years of suicide figures from the Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics as a starting point for a $390,000 state-funded study his organization is doing on suicide this year.

The numbers show that between 1990 and 2002, there were 1,618 suicides in Alaska. Firearms were used in 74 percent of the cases. Fifteen percent of the victims died by hanging or suffocation, 7 percent by drugs or poisoning, and 1 percent by exposure to carbon monoxide. The remaining cases either were unspecified or used other methods, such as jumping or drowning.

The study also shows that 153 people in Alaska took their own lives in May over the 13-year period, more than in any other month. April followed with 150.

The fewest suicides occurred in December and October, with 117 in each of those months. November was ninth, with 131.

Suicide experts say the public often links the winter months and winter holidays with higher suicide numbers. According to a 2000 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, the media are at least partly to blame for perpetuating that myth.

That study found a long list of news reports that either implied or directly attributed winter suicides to the holiday season.

"The majority of the persons who commit suicide suffer from a mental disorder," a summary of the Annenberg study says. "Suicides actually peak in the spring and are not more common during the winter holiday period."

Perkins said it makes sense that more suicides occur in spring and summer in Alaska than in winter. Spring and summer are a much anticipated time of year after Alaska's long, cold, dark winter.

"That's the time of greatest difference between the depressed person and the general population," Perkins said. "In spring and summer everyone else is happy, and their life is in the toilet."

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