Two weeks ago in Juneau, we were once again painfully reminded of the devastating pain felt by so many in a community, particularly the family, when the tragedy of suicide occurs. An incredibly gifted and talented young man of 15, admired and cared for by those who knew him, chose to take his life. We will never truly understand the full reason why one might chose to take their life. It appears in this young adolescent's life, it would have been nearly impossible to detect early suicide warning signs or prevent this particular tragedy, as symptoms of depression were not present and he clearly did not engage in the use of drugs or alcohol. That said, the vast majority of suicides are preventable and warning signs are typically present.
Data indicates over 90 percent of suicides occur when the symptoms of mental illness and/or substance abuse are occurring. Potential suicide warning signs include depression, hopelessness, loss of interest in friends and activities, increased use of alcohol or drugs, giving away personal belongings, saying good-bye, threatening to harm oneself or having a deliberate plan to harm oneself, preoccupation with death and making a will.
The Alaska Bureau of Vital Statistics indicates Alaska has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Alaskans under the age of 50, with Alaska Native and American Indian males age 17 to 24 having the highest rates in the country. Alaska Native communities in the far northern and western remote regions have the highest rates geographically.
Research also clearly indicates addressing suicide prevention head on is one of the most powerful strategies a community can have to prevent suicides. In a little more than two years, the Juneau Community Suicide Prevention Task Force has accomplished a great deal in addressing suicide prevention in Juneau. The Task Force, and all suicide prevention efforts, are a result of a three-year grant awarded to the Juneau School District through the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, Division of Behavioral Prevention.
The Juneau School District's Signs of Suicide, or SOS, program is now beginning its third year of successful implementation. The nationally acclaimed SOS program teaches adolescents to never keep issues related to suicide a secret. The program teaches students suicide warning signs, symptoms of depression, risk factors and, most importantly, to seek adult help immediately for himself, herself or for a friend if you are concerned about suicide.
SOS also includes a mental health screening and the district now screens all ninth graders every year. Starting this year, suicide prevention curriculum will be presented to all seventh through 12th graders in both middle school and high school. It will not include screening, but it will give our Juneau students repeated lessons regarding suicide prevention. Most importantly, it will teach them to never keep suicide a secret. For the last two years, Juneau suicide prevention brochures for parents of teens, and a separate one for teens have been sent to the homes of all sixth- through 12th-grade students.
The Juneau Suicide Prevention website, found at juneausuicideprevention.org, provides a vast array of Juneau information on suicide prevention, including the Careline number at 1-877-266-HELP and Bartlett Emergency numbers. SEARHC also has a new helpline at 1-877-294-0074. The Juneau Mental Health Directory has been designed as a user-friendly mental health resource guide and service for members of the Juneau community, and can be found at juneaumentalhealth.org.
The Alaska Division of Behavioral Prevention, the Alaska Mental Health Board and Alaska Suicide Prevention Council recognize Juneau's Task Force as leading the state in both community- and school-based suicide prevention practices and strategies. The Task Force will do its best to continue to provide this leadership in Alaska by continuing to strengthen our school and community prevention efforts for the welfare of all. Let's all do our part to keep each other safe.
To learn more, go to juneausuicideprevention.org or juneaumentalhealth.org.
Kiernan is a clinical and school psychologist. He is also chairman of the Juneau Community Suicide Prevention Task Force and is a co-founder of the Juneau Alaska Native Youth Coalition.