A new study conducted by the Alaska Division of Public Health shows a decline in violent deaths in Alaska during the past five years, an indication that some of Alaska's most persistent and serious problems could be improving.
The data comes from the Alaska Violent Death Reporting System (AKVDRS), a federally funded program established in 2004. Alaska is one of 18 states receiving federal funding for the program, which has collected data for two five-year periods, 2004-2008 and 2007-2011.
For the latest period, homicide and suicide rates dropped 11 percent and 2 percent respectively. But it's not all good news for Alaska.
Suicide rate second highest in US
The state's startlingly high suicide rate, especially among Alaska Natives, has been an issue for decades. And although the small drop is promising, Alaska still had the second highest suicide rate in the US in 2010.
Between 2007-2011, 771 suicides were reported in the state -- 49 percent by American Indian and Alaska Natives, 22 percent by whites, 14 percent by African Americans and 8 percent by Asians or Pacific Islanders.
Men are far more likely to commit suicide. In fact, Alaska men ages 20-24 accounted for a full 74 percent of all the suicides during those years. Twenty-one percent of all suicides were current or former U.S. military personnel. And the most common characteristics of the suicides were proven or suspected alcohol intoxication and a depressed mood.
'Doing something right'
A 2 percent drop may seem minimal, but Deborah Hull-Jilly, principal investigator for the Alaska Violent Death Reporting System, said that it represents a real change. In the past 10 years the rates have been "pretty stable," she explained. To see even a small drop indicates "we're doing something right in getting the rates down."
There were far fewer homicides in Alaska during the same period, with 191 victims of homicide during 2007-2011, an 11 percent drop. Still, Alaska's violent crime rate – including homicide, rape and robbery – was 57 percent higher than the national average in 2011.
Of all Alaska homicide victims, 73 percent were males. Homicides were most often "precipitated by a crime (involving) money, property, or drugs," or another "argument, abuse or conflict," the report said.
Sixty percent of them occurred in a home or apartment.
Rise of infant deaths
Another noteworthy statistic is the rise of infant deaths whose cause remains undetermined. It's "something that we're seeing nationally," Hull-Jilly said. She stressed the role that alcohol and drug use by caretakers plays in creating unsafe sleeping environments for infants.
"Never bring baby to bed with you," she said. The report points to a need for "more research … to better understand risk factors for violent deaths among infants."
Other violent death statistics of note from both homicides and suicides.
- 51 percent involved a firearm.
- 19 percent of the deceased were current or former U.S. military personnel.
- 60 percent of the deceased were tested for alcohol or drugs, with 78 percent of that group coming up positive.
- Although infants made up only 1.5 percent of the Alaska population, they represent 5 percent of violent deaths (including Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).
"Alaska is unique," Hull-Jilly said, with populations scattered across a vast state, including extremely rural areas. Statistics from the Alaska Violent Death Reporting System help programs to focus their efforts "so they work for Alaska."
For example, the prevalence of alcohol and drugs in violent deaths shows that further efforts are needed to combat substance abuse. The report recommends, among other things, that health-care providers monitor patients for depression and substance abuse, education for providers on recognizing abuse and domestic violence, and further research regarding deaths among U.S. military members.
Contact Laurel Andrews laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com.