FAIRBANKS - People are meeting in Nenana this week to explore solutions to an epidemic of self-inflicted deaths that has long plagued Alaska's smallest communities.
The state's suicide rate is twice the national average, and the rate in certain rural areas is five times the state average, according to a study released last year by the Alaska Suicide Prevention Council.
And while suicide is a statewide problem, the rate of self-inflicted deaths among Alaska Natives is far higher. They make up 19 percent of the Alaska's population, but account for 41 percent of the state's suicides. The suicide rate for Alaska Native men is nearly 69 deaths per 100,000 people, more than six times the national average.
Monday was the first day of the 2005 Choose to Live conference, a three-day suicide awareness and prevention gathering in the community of 594 located 55 miles southwest of Fairbanks.
Alaska Native youth and young adults are at the greatest risk of committing suicide, said Keggulluk Polk, a suicide-prevention consultant from Bethel.
"It seems to start at about 14 and go all the way to about 27," he said.
Helping youth reconnect with their Native heritage is one of the best ways villages can reduce the rate of suicides, Polk said.
Solving the problems associated with suicide will require a communitywide effort including elders, schools, city and tribal governments, medical professionals and others, presenters at the gathering said.
"We need to draw out the resources and strengths from the community," said Elizabeth Sunnyboy, behavioral health coordinator at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. based in Bethel. "They are the ones with the ability to address these issues."
Shirley Demientieff was instrumental in helping organize the gathering, which was funded with a grant from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority.
To drum up interest, Demientieff flew to the village of Allakaket, 190 miles northwest of Fairbanks, and took a skiff downriver to the mouth of the Koyukuk River, stopping in villages along the way to talk about suicide prevention and the upcoming gathering.