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Education is key to suicide prevention

Posted: Sunday, September 17, 2000

In 1998 twice as many youth age 15-24 died of suicide than from motor vehicle crashes.

Although Alaskan demographics are skewed due to our young population, in the five years from 1994-98 the average suicide rate for youth age 15-24 in Alaska was 41 per 100,000, about three-and-one-half times greater than the national rate. Alaska Native males under age 20 continue to be at greatest risk.

How often have we, as Alaskans, been saddened by the unexpected death of a young person who has taken his or her own life, someone who may seem to adults as "successful" or "happy?"

On Thursday. Sept. 21 at 7 p.m. in the Harborview Library three professionals from Columbia University will give a public presentation on the risks of suicide among teenagers.

Although suicide deaths among youth could be considered rare, even one in a thousand is too many if there are ways to prevent them from happening. Suicide ranks third nationally as the leading cause of death of young people. Recently, researchers have identified behaviors or "triggers" to watch for so people can seek help for a young friend who may have a treatable depression, substance abuse, or other problem.

Nationally, as many as 5 percent, or one in 20 children experience a potentially disabling depression before age 20. Depression is diagnosed based on specific symptoms over a period of time. Of those who attempt suicide, 85 percent will never try again. More than one-third of those who complete the act of suicide have made previous attempts.

There is a strong correlation between alcoholism and suicide. Alcohol abuse and suicide often go hand in hand. In some parts of Alaska, alcohol is involved in as many as 80 percent of all suicide attempts. Even those who do not normally drink will ingest alcohol before killing themselves. There is some evidence, however, that depressive illnesses and the tendency toward alcoholism may have genetic components.

It is a popular myth that asking about suicide increases the risk. Evidence exists that the opposite is actually true. But it is also a myth that people who talk openly about killing themselves never commit suicide. Most people who attempt suicide are ambivalent about their decision and really want to get rid of their pain.

Most often people who are thinking about it give clues or warnings of their suicidal intent. These clues may be subtle, but it is estimated that 80 percent of people who died by suicide had mentioned their intentions to family or friends.

Suicidal threats or actual suicidal attempts should always be treated seriously. If you suspect suicidal ideation, always ask.

Sharron Lobaugh is president of NAMI-Juneau, a family education and support group for persons with mental illness. She recently retired from the State of Alaska as an injury prevention specialist within the Department of Health and Social Services Section of Community Health and Emergency Medical Services. She served as project director of an EMS for Children grant on suicide prevention.

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