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Stand up against suicide, Alaska. We can do better.

Benjamin Manley
OPINION: Alaska's suicide epidemic will continue to claim the lives of our young people and leave us wondering why. Research continues to find ways to address the problem of suicide, but in order for it to succeed, everyone needs get involved and actively work against the problem, starting with the state. Courtesy Benjamin Manley

Alaska has consistently had one of the highest, if not the highest rate of suicide in the United States and shows no sign of changing in the near future. It is time to take a stand: Change by providing adequate training, funding, and compassion for those who struggle with thoughts of suicide.

With the suicide rate relatively unchanged and averaging 21.78 per 100,000 people in 1995-2009, (average calculated from Alaska’s Bureau of Vital Statistics website), Alaska’s suicide prevention program clearly needs to be overhauled. Since its creation in 2001, the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council, which consists of 17 members, has been charged with finding solutions to the continual high rate of suicide. Since that time, the suicide rate in Alaska has decreased less that 1 percent. One would think that the rate would have been reduced by more than that, considering the number of people who have died by suicide, the state’s plan seems inadequate at best.

Alaska’s newest prevention plan, Casting the Net Upstream: Promoting Wellness to Prevent Suicide, was implemented in 2012 extending to 2017. It consists of six goals and 35 strategies to accomplish them. Each year the Annual Implementation Report will be published discussing the progress made towards achieving those goals. The 2013 report highlighted only nine of the 35 strategies as having achieved progress. The report also states, “To attempt to report on every suicide prevention activity ... would be overwhelming.” What is overwhelming is that this council established the strategies, but now does not release the progress, or lack thereof, on all the strategies in the same report.

Alaska’s state budget for the prevention program and its implementation are minimal, especially considering the continued high rate of suicide. The fiscal year 2015 mental health budget allocated about $2.3 million for rural services and suicide prevention and an additional $662,500 for the prevention council. Considering the behavioral health care budget for inmates is in excess of $6 million, suicide prevention apparently doesn’t have a high priority for Alaska’s representatives. Gov. Parnell didn’t even bother to address it in his budget priorities handout, “Focusing on Alaska’s Future.” Gov. Parnell could have addressed suicide in either the education section or the public safety section.

Community programs and nonprofit organizations are available to those who know about them. The problem is that most people are unaware of the programs. It is rare to see or hear an advertisement for a suicide prevention program. If prevention programs are going to work, then they must be as well-advertised as the beer commercials that are continually aired.

Schools are one place where funding and education could be of great assistance in getting awareness out on suicide prevention. Senate Bill 137, the Jason Flatt Act, requires certain teachers, administrators, counselors, and specialists employed in the school districts in grades 7-12 to have at least two hours of suicide awareness and prevention training. This is a move in the right direction. The Suicide Awareness, Prevention and Postvention (SAPP) program is also a good building block in making our future generations more aware of the help available. According to the above implementation report, as of 2013 only six out of the 54 school districts in Alaska have received grant funds for the program.

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in Alaska. Bureau of Vital Statistics reports from 2001 to 2009 say suicide was the sixth leading cause of death, jumping up to fifth in 2004. In that span, suicide has ranked ahead of HIV, diabetes, motor-vehicle accidents, and homicides. Considering the funding that goes into the prevention and awareness of those other causes of death on the state and national level, we must review and up the funding for suicide prevention programming.

Dealing with the loss of a friend or loved one can be devastating. The “why” questions are never realized, and everyone questions themselves. It is vital to ensure families and communities are aware of the assistance they can receive. As with suicide prevention, the programs available are not well publicized. Another roadblock faces survivors of a suicide death: the reluctance to speak of a personal tragedy.

On October 9, 2010 a young man took his life 15 days before his 14th birthday. This person suffered from bipolar disorder and was being treated. His medications recently had been increased, in retrospect the medication should have changed or been reduced due to increased mood swings and aggressive behavior. He also had troubles in school and was often bullied by fellow students. Subsequently, his parents met with the school to discuss the ongoing challenges.

The day he committed suicide seemed typical. His oldest brother and father were at a wrestling meet. He and his younger brother played video games and helped with the household chores. He waited until his mother went to take a bath, and closed his Siamese cat in the room with his brother, who was waiting for him. He walked into the living room and took his own life.

Today, the family struggles trying to understand the events of that day. Those struggles have included post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicidal thoughts and ideations. Their recovery has been a long journey with many ups and downs. October 9, 2010 was the day my son committed suicide. As noted, this tragic event occurs far too often. The stigma that surrounds suicide needs to be eradicated. Again, we, as a collective have failed to hear and understand the need of our community. Suicide should be openly discussed and the kid gloves need to be removed. If Alaskans continue to shy away from the problem, these needless deaths will continue.

Many programs do exist to assist with the awareness and prevention of suicide. Many of the programs found during this research have done a great deal to improve the awareness on suicide. The most apparent downfall for these organizations is again the lack of publicity and advertisement. Research continues to find ways to bring awareness and prevention to deal with suicide, but in order for it to succeed, everyone needs get involved. People mustn’t relegate themselves to the sidelines; they must be active participants.

As we continue to lose friends and family to suicide, not only is it our responsibility to stand up and fight this issue, but also our governments must take responsibility to provide the necessary training, funding and research to battle suicide deaths. Not doing so is an injustice to those who have succumbed to suicide. Please stand up and help those who may not be able to help themselves.

Benjamin Manley has been married for 20 years. He is the father of four and has one granddaughter. He retired from the Army after 20 years. He says he wrote the commentary above because he has struggled every day trying to find an answer to the "why." He writes about that frustration here in hopes of encouraging others to take a stand against suicide.

Correction: An editing error resulted in an incorrect reference to the statewide suicide rate, listing it as "21.78 per 100 people." The error has been corrected above to "per 100,000 people."

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.