My turn: Together communities can prevent suicide

Posted: Friday, September 11, 2009

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, held each year to raise awareness that suicide is preventable. For the past 35 years, this week has been observed to remember those lost to suicide, to support survivors of suicide and to reinforce the message that suicide can be prevented.

Suicide accounts for more than half of all violent deaths in the world - more than all the deaths caused by war and murder combined. Millions more attempt suicide every year, and while their attempt may not result in death, they do require medical attention and mental health care as a result. For each person who attempts suicide, for each person who dies by suicide, there are many more people - friends, parents, children, partners and loved ones - who are left to grieve.

Suicide doesn't just happen out there in the world somewhere, it happens here in Juneau, in our communities, our schools and within our families. Alaska's suicide rate - 19.6 per every 100,000 people - is twice the national average. In 2008, 165 Alaskans committed suicide. That is a loss felt by families, communities, and our entire state.

There are many efforts underway in communities all over Alaska to help prevent suicide. Careline is a 24-hour confidential and toll free hotline and online chat offering immediate support, crisis intervention, suicide prevention and information.

Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) teaches people to recognize the signs that a person is at risk and how to intervene to prevent suicide. The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium has trained more than 100 teachers, health aides, licensed counselors and caregivers in the last year, expanding prevention resources in communities statewide. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services offers Gatekeeper training, which teaches people how to identify risk factors, intervention skills and how to make the appropriate referrals when a person needs additional help.

The Statewide Suicide Prevention Council has developed a state suicide prevention plan as a resource for communities implementing local suicide prevention efforts. The plan relies on communities developing culturally relevant responses, based on the strengths of their individual communities. A federal grant is making it possible for three regional teams to develop suicide prevention plans specific to their communities so those regions' needs can be addressed. These efforts complement suicide prevention initiatives funded by similar grants to Kawerak, Inc. in the Bering Strait region and Maniilaq Association in the Northwest Arctic region.

It may feel like an unsolvable problem, but suicide is preventable. All of us can take the opportunity to join together during this week, and every week, to raise awareness of the unacceptable cost of suicide. Reach out to the people in your life and let them know that their lives matter. If you or if someone you know is at risk of suicide, ask for help. If you know someone who has lost a loved one to suicide, let them know you care. These simple steps can go a long way to helping prevent suicide.

For immediate support, call Careline at 877-266-HELP or For information about ASIST call Dr. Kathleen Graves at 907-729-4594 or Barbara Franks at 907-729-3751. For information about Gatekeepers or the Suicide Prevention Council call 907-465-8536.

• Kate Burkhart is the executive director of the Alaska Mental Health Board and of the Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse.

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