High suicide rates still plague Alaska Natives

Experts say health outreach doesn't extend far enough

Posted: Wednesday, April 11, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Suicides among Alaska Natives continue at rates far higher than the national average despite two decades of effort by state and community leaders, a new study shows.

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Fifty-eight of every 100,000 Alaska Natives killed themselves in 2004, compared with the national suicide rate of 11 per 100,000 the same year, according to the study, conducted by the Alaska Injury Prevention Center and other groups for the state Division of Behavioral Health and other interested parties, including the Alaska Statewide Suicide Prevention Council. The national rate has hovered around 10 per 100,000 for years.

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

State and tribal officials said Alaska Natives battle the same ills, such as alcohol abuse, that they faced two decades ago, with new factors thrown in, such as methamphetamine. Many are culturally adrift.

The behavioral health system has made great strides in dealing with depression, substance abuse and other suicidal factors, experts said. But it doesn't extend enough into villages where per-capita suicides are most rampant.

Native suicides for the past three years appear to be as high now as they were in the 1980s, said Ron Perkins, executive director of the injury prevention center.

The study looked at the 426 Native and non-Native suicides that occurred in Alaska between Sept. 1, 2003, and Aug. 31, 2006.

Family members and friends of 56 of those victims were interviewed. Researchers learned that nearly half went on drinking binges in their last month. Two-thirds expressed hopelessness or a wish to die.

Of the respondents, 78 percent felt suicide victims didn't get enough professional help.

Natives were reluctant to talk for the study, said Perkins. Relatives and friends of only 13 of 159 Native victims agreed to be interviewed.

It's a tough issue in small villages where many people intimately live, said suicide prevention council chairman Bill Martin, a Southeast Alaska Native.

But tribal leaders should make suicide a priority and work with Native organizations and the state to provide public awareness campaigns on the issue, he said. Cultural pride should be encouraged through traditional dance groups, Native art classes and other programs. Parents should take a more active role in fighting depression and alcoholism in children.

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

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