Symposium draws Native Alaskans for discussion on suicide

Number of deaths grows by 25 percent in four years

Posted: Friday, June 05, 2009

Bill Martin wanted to get Native Alaskans talking about suicide prevention for years. This week, he achieved that goal as tribal leaders from around the region attended a two-day symposium in Juneau.

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Graphic By Jessy Post / Juneau Empire
Graphic By Jessy Post / Juneau Empire

"This has always been a sensitive subject," said Martin, president of the Tlingit-Haida Central Council. "Everybody in Southeast has lost friends and loved ones to suicide, so it's pretty hard to talk about it."

The number of suicides in Alaska increased 25 percent over the past four years, according to the state Bureau of Vital Statistics, "so not talking about it is not the way to go," Martin said.

The symposium on Monday and Tuesday drew about 80 people. Nearly all of the tribal leaders in the region joined elders and members of Alaska Native Sisterhood and Alaska Native Brotherhood to listen as people talked about how suicide affects their lives.

The stories were hard to hear - a mother recounting her child giving away possessions, not knowing the child was planning to die - but people listened and would go back to their villages with renewed purpose, Martin said.

"It's painful to reopen these doors but it has to be done to get us motivated to try to do things for the people," he said.

The suicide rate in Alaska is double the national average. It reached 22.2 deaths per 100,000 people in 2008. In Southeast, it was 17.2 in 2008, up from 14.2 the year before. The national rate is about 11.

Alaska's Native population, especially the youth, suffers disproportionately from suicide. More than 30 percent of suicides in Alaska are completed by Natives but they make up only 16 percent of the population.

Martin said the problem is growing in Southeast. The community of Hoonah, with 600 people, is reeling from three suicides in the past six months, he said.

In 2004, 127 people died by suicide in Alaska. That number grew by one-quarter over the past four years, to 161 last year.

"Is it an epidemic?" said James Gallanos, state suicide prevention program coordinator. "I think that we're No. 1 in the nation shows we need to address it. If we act like these are just random acts, we'll never bring it to the attention of the people."

Gallanos is working to dole out $1.5 million in federal grant money over the next three years for various prevention programs around the state, and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski last week announced a request for an additional $1.2 million to study the problem.

Murkowski made the request to the new Secretary of Health and Human Services, saying it would partly look at genetics.

Gallanos said additional funding is needed but that money will not solve the problem. Attendees at the Juneau symposium recognized that cultural loss was at the root of alcohol addiction, child abuse and other problems leading to high suicide rates, he said.

With stories fresh in their minds, Martin said he hoped attendees would continue discussions at home. The villages are where the problems lie and that's where a solution might be found, he said.

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