Juneau group takes action to prevent more teen suicides

Posted: Sunday, November 23, 2008

A small group of parents and professionals concerned over the number of teen suicides in Juneau grew over the past year into a task force that is using volunteerism and a state grant to address the problem.

The Juneau Community Suicide Prevention Task Force includes more than 70 members divided into five committees that have met once a month to address topics related to depression and suicide among all age groups.

A three-year grant of about $65,000 annually from the state Department of Health and Social Services Division of Behavioral Health is supporting their efforts to host a Web site, sponsor suicide awareness training and implement a new curriculum in the schools, among other plans.

Task force participants come from organizations spanning the community: Juneau Youth Services, Tlingit and Haida Central Council, Juneau Alliance on Mental Illness, Catholic Community Services and Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium are a few. Private-practice counselors and parents are included.

Destiny Sargeant, a clinical psychologist with SEARHC and a Juneau School Board member, called the level of participation "phenomenal."

"This was a community-wide effort that was really impressive," she said. "Lots of times it's piecemeal or parlayed out, or lasts for a time and then goes away. Everyone put their heart and soul into this because we really care about people and care about kids."

Alaska's suicide rate is two times the national average - one of the highest in the country.

Teen suicide became a particular concern in Juneau when, just a few months into the last school year, four teens had taken their own lives.

During a series of meetings with police, psychologists, pastors, school counselors and others, it was determined that eight young adults had committed suicide in the prior 18 months.

Statistics available at the time indicated that Juneau had a suicide rate among teens of 10 deaths per 100,000. That compares to a national rate among people age 10 to 24 of seven to nine deaths.

People who work with teens said it was time to start finding some solutions, and further said that talking about depression and suicide was a start.

Brendan Kiernan, a clinical psychologist who works in the school district and has a private practice, organized the task force in the spring.

"I started contacting people and I never got no for an answer," he said. In a short period of time, he had more than 50 members.

The grant was awarded to the school district, but Kiernan said through the task force, the money is being used to create a community-wide suicide prevention program.

The Web site launched last week offers Juneau-specific contact information and details on what to expect when reaching out to help someone who is depressed or suicidal. It is designed to demystify the process of getting help, Kiernan said. Pamphlets and posters are being designed to advertise some of the same information.

Training sessions for professionals and the general public were set up so that more people know and can recognize the signs of depression and suicidal behavior, Sargeant said. Plans are to hold sessions on a consistent basis, and add quarterly community meetings so that people can talk about topics of interest that relate to suicide.

Deb White, a parent who with her two sons knew five young people who killed themselves in a short period of time in Juneau, pushed for something to be done about the problem.

Mental health professionals and the school district are talking to each other through the task force, and that is a positive step, she said.

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