What role does alcohol play in Alaska’s soaring suicide rate?

Posted on October 31, 2013 

From Kyle Hopkins in Anchorage --

Half the time Alaskans kill themselves, they have been drinking.

That doesn’t mean alcohol causes suicide in Alaska. But it’s an important figure when you consider that far fewer suicides nationwide -- only about one third -- involve booze. Why is the rate so much higher among Alaskans? 

Three recent cases have me thinking about the connection between alcohol and suicide in the state:

-- On Tuesday, a 27-year-old Nikiski man shot himself at his home after tearfully telling friends about his experiences as a combat veteran in Iraq and the loss of someone close to him, according to Alaska State Troopers. "(He) was consuming alcohol and became very emotional," investigators wrote.

--  While reporting Wednesday's story on Nome’s efforts to reverse a trend of alcohol-related deaths in that Bering Strait city, I wondered how the high-profile suicide of John Patrick Bunce, a deckhand featured on the reality show “Bering Sea Gold,” fit into town’s historic drinking culture.

Zeke Tenhoff, a star of the show, directed his anger at Nome bar and liquor store owners, blaming alcohol in his friend’s 2012 death.

“I feel extreme rage at the culture of institutionalized, severe alcoholism in western Alaska,” he told interviewers.

-- Mountain Village police officers responded to a report that 18-year-old Zachary Queenie was suicidal one night in August, court records show. Queenie, who had been drinking, pointed a loaded rifle at the three officers before he was tackled and arrested. Once in custody he told police he should have pulled the trigger, according to charges filed in district court.

Excluding accidents, suicide is the leading cause of violent death in the state, the Health Department reports.

We'd like to hear your thoughts. If you’re an Alaskan who wants to talk about suicide and drinking – either off the record or for an interview in the newspaper – email me at alcohol@adn.com.

Here is the full text of the trooper report on the Nikiski death:

Location: Nikiski

Type: Suicide 

On 10-29-13 at about 2208 HRS AST was notified of a reported suicide in Nikiski. Investigation revealed that Michael Easley, 27 of Nikiski, had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his residence in Nikiski. Present when Easley shot himself were two of Easley's friends, a 43 year old male of Kenai, and a 29 year old female of Nikiski.  They were all at Easley's residence where Easley was consuming alcohol and became very emotional and began crying as he spoke of his experiences as a combat veteran in Iraq and of a recent death in his personal life.  Nothing suspicious was found during the investigation. 

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