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Study: Banning alcohol in Alaska villages doesn't reduce suicide. But more jobs might.

Kyle Hopkins
In fall 2013, voters in Shishmaref rejected a proposal to overturn a ban on the importation and sale of alcohol. File photo, October 1, 2013. Marc Lester photo

Banning alcohol in Alaska’s most isolated and cash-poor villages has failed to reduce suicide rates among the young Alaska Native men who live there, new research says. 

A study to be published in the American Journal of Public Health concludes that Alaska Natives are statistically less likely to kill themselves if they live in villages with prominent traditional elders, a high number of married couples and access to jobs. Yet outlawing alcohol in villages had no “statistically significant” impact on the number of 15- to 34-year-old Native men who kill themselves, the study found.  

Matthew Berman, an economics professor and researcher for the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, authored the report. 

“Despite the role of alcohol in many Alaska Native suicides, alcohol control is likely ineffective as a prevention measure; however, it is one the few mechanisms available to Alaska communities,” Berman wrote.

Suicide rates in Alaska are among highest in the nation. Alaska Natives living in villages reachable only by plane or boat have been particularly at risk over the past two generations. 

In some homes, elders who came of age before statehood speak only their traditional language. Many households still lack running water. Jobs are scarce. Young men, in particular, find themselves caught between two cultures as they struggle to balance traditional family roles of hunting and fishing with the demands of a cash-fueled Western economy. 

Berman studied alcohol control policies in Alaska in 1999, concluding at the time that prohibition could backfire for Native populations. His recent study focused on suicide rates of young Native men, who are killing themselves at more than 13 times the national average.

Jobs linked to lower rates of suicide

More than 46,000 Alaskans live in communities that ban or limit alcohol sales. Those communities are also the most likely to have high poverty rates, Berman found. 

Yet some Alaska villages and towns with similar histories and demographics have very different suicide rates. That’s good news. It suggests that by changing living conditions, Alaska communities might be able to reduce the deaths. 

Berman’s research suggests that creating sustainable jobs in the 178 remote Alaska towns and villages identified in the study could save lives. The study found that villages with the lowest suicide rates also had higher household incomes and more households where the occupants speak an Alaska Native language and are not proficient in English.

“A strong cash economy and presence of traditional elders provided opportunities and role models for identification and integration with the majority and minority cultures, respectively,” Berman wrote.

Berman found that communities with a higher percentage of people on public assistance also had lower suicide rates. 

The new research relied on death records for people living in communities where Natives comprise at least 25 percent of the population. The period of study was 1980 through 2007 and compared suicide rates with changing alcohol control laws in the villages. 

Berman found that villages that go “dry,” meaning where voters choose to outlaw the sale and importation of booze, had slightly higher statistical suicide rates than similar communities that allow alcohol. When he accounted for other suicide risk factors in each village, such as isolation and median income, Berman concluded that alcohol bans played no significant role in local suicide rates.

Providing more village-based careers, meantime, could save lives, the study found. 

“Communities that have more and better jobs, higher incomes, have lower and better suicide rates,” Berman wrote.

Studies published in the late 1990s found that alcohol prohibitions in Barrow and elsewhere appeared to reduce injury and death and improve public safety. 

“Just because it doesn’t help suicide doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it for other reasons,” Berman said in an interview.

In search of other answers

About half of all suicides in the state involve alcohol, according to the state Section of Epidemiology. Village leaders and statewide policymakers have long sought a solution to the Alaska suicide epidemic, with many villages turning to local prohibitions beginning in the 1980s. 

The crisis returned as a flagship priority at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in October. 

Today the rate remains twice the national average among all Alaskans, with few answers. Excluding accidents, suicide is the leading cause of violent death in the state, the Health Department reports.

Three people killed themselves in the Norton Sound village of Unalakleet in the past year, said Ariel Tweto, who became a reality TV star when Discovery Channel filmed a series on her family’s airline business in the village. 

In the Inupiaq village of 700, Tweto knew each of the dead. 

“One was a classmate. Another one was one of my best friends,” she said.

Tweto recently began a speaking tour of Alaska schools to talk about suicide and “finding your reason to wake up in the morning.” 

She said she’s not surprised to hear that banning alcohol in a village doesn’t necessarily reduce the deaths. If people can’t buy alcohol, they will make it with yeast and berries, she said.

Unalakleet residents voted to ban the sale of alcohol by a margin of 3-to-1 in 1992. Meantime, many villagers remain reluctant to talk about suicide, Tweto said.

“Everyone acts two days later like nothing happened,” she said. “What are we doing? Are we just waiting for the next guy to do it?”

Contact Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334, email him at khopkins(at)adn.com, or follow him on Twitter @adn_kylehopkins.