Alaska’s adolescent suicide rate has risen sharply over the last three years, according to a state report released this month.
Between 2016 and 2019, there were 90 adolescent suicides identified by the state, according to the report. The overall rate was 28.8 suicides per 100,000 adolescents, and was highest for males and Alaska Native youths. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services classifies adolescents as people between 12 and 19 years old.
The suicide rate among Alaska Native adolescents nearly doubled from 2018 to 2019.
“These are not the numbers we want here in Alaska,” said Bev Schoonover, director of the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council.
In Alaska, a high suicide rate, particularly among adolescents, is not new. Over the last few years, Alaska’s adolescent suicide rate has been about three times higher than the national average. Suicide is currently the leading cause of death in Alaska for adolescents.
But advocates around the state say that while Alaska’s numbers are concerning, they also don’t tell the whole story, particularly how many people in Alaska are working hard to address the issue and how suicide is preventable.
“The thing about (suicide) numbers is we only see how many deaths there have been, but you never see how many lives have been saved,” said Sharon Fishel, education specialist at the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. “And so people get depressed and say, ‘These numbers keep rising, nothing we’re doing is working well.’ But I don’t think that that’s the case.”
She and Schoonover both emphasized the progress they’ve witnessed, and that there are numerous suicide prevention efforts happening around the state.
“Even though this was really alarming, I think that there are things that we can do and families can do to really fight this, to really address these issues,” Schoonover said.
She said that she and others on the council had heard last year how high the latest numbers were, and that it caused a doubling down on suicide prevention efforts. She said there are more conversations between various groups that in the past tended to work independently.
“We’ve really been trying to work together more than we ever have, because these numbers are so alarming,” she said.
Schoonover pointed out that the latest trend is not just “an Alaska thing,” and that the recent increase follows national trends.
In 2018 — the most recent year with national data available — one out of five deaths among adolescents in the United States was due to suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And nationally, the suicide rate among adolescents increased by 17% between 2016 and 2018.
The state report only considers 2019 numbers. Advocates are also concerned about this year’s numbers, considering the toll the pandemic has taken on mental health.
“I wish I could say that I think these numbers are going to go down in 2020, but I don’t think they are,” said Fishel.
“We’re seeing an increase in depression, anxiety, isolation and substance misuse, which is all going to lead to an increase in suicide rates,” she said.
There are many factors that contribute to suicide, Schoonover said.
“We call it ‘the web of causality,’ because it’s not usually just one thing," she said.
Factors including trauma, depression, stress and isolation — plus poverty and limited access to health care — can all put young people at a higher risk for suicidal thoughts and behavior, she said.
The good news is that suicide is preventable.
The state report cited resources that young people can turn to for support, including the national Suicide Prevention Resource Center.
“It’s really proven that just talking about it stops the act,” Schoonover said. “It’s a hard thing to talk about in some communities. And in some cultures, people don’t talk about it, which is really challenging.”
Her advice to young people in this situation is to find someone in the community, likely a school counselor, “who you can go to talk to that you feel safe sharing that with,” she said.
Fishel said a shift statewide has been a focus around “peer-to-peer” models, where adolescents are talking with one another and encouraging their friends to talk to a trusted adult when they need help.
Schoonover said, "It’s up to all Alaskans to really talk about suicide, and to work together to really protect our youth.”
“Suicide is super preventable, and there’s a lot of resources out there,” she said.
If you or someone you know are dealing with a mental crisis or suicidal thoughts, you can call the Alaska Careline at 1-877-266-HELP or the National Suicide Prevention line at 1-800-273-8255. For more information on the Alaska Suicide Prevention Council and suicide in Alaska, visit dhss.alaska.gov/suicideprevention.