Alaska is seeing an increase in the number of youths ages 11 to 14 who have attempted suicide — even as overall suicide rates among youths have declined statewide.
The most recently available state data paints a complicated picture of a problem that has long plagued Alaska communities, health officials said this week.
A state report from 2019 found that the adolescent suicide rate in Alaska rose sharply from 2016 to 2019.
But in 2020, Alaska actually experienced a 50% decrease in the number of youths ages 10 through 19 who took their own lives, Leah Van Kirk said Wednesday, citing preliminary data that has not been published yet. She’s the suicide prevention coordinator with the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
Van Kirk attributed the decline to suicide prevention and intervention work being done around the state. But other recent data is somewhat conflicting and less encouraging — and she and others say there’s still work to be done.
“This year, we have had an increase in some of our youngest people in Alaska attempting suicide,” she said.
“We’re seeing some data that’s showing that 11-to-14-year-olds are attempting suicide at an increasing rate,” Van Kirk said.
In response, the state health department has focused on partnering with other divisions and agencies statewide to help target younger youths and their families in prevention efforts — and many of those partnerships already existed before the pandemic, Van Kirk said.
Alaska’s suicide rate has long been among the highest in the country. Alaska’s average annual adolescent suicide rate from 2016 to 2019 was about three times higher than the national average.
During 2019, suicide was the leading overall cause of death for Alaska youths and young adults aged 15 to 24 — the only age group where that was the case, Van Kirk said. Rates were also highest among Alaska Native people, men and people ages 20-24, state data showed.
“We knew that we had a particularly vulnerable youth and young adult population as we entered the pandemic,” Van Kirk said. “That was really important that as we started putting prevention measures in place, that we really targeted our youth.”
Across all age groups, suicide rates have historically been highest in Western Alaska and more rural parts of the state.
However, even in parts of the state where suicide rates may be lower — like Anchorage and Fairbanks — the actual number of people completing suicide is still high, Van Kirk said.
And while more men than women die from suicide, women actually attempt suicide at higher rates than men.
“This helps us know that we need to target our efforts not only to areas in our state where we have high rates of suicide, but also where we have high numbers,” she said. “And that we make sure we’re not only targeting men” with those efforts.
Some of Alaska’s most recent data reflects a national problem. This month, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a rare advisory highlighting the urgent need to address youth mental health, describing a growing problem that he believes was exacerbated by the pandemic.
In a 53-page report, Murthy cited data showing that symptoms of depression and anxiety have doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youths experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms.
That research also found that during the first few months of 2021, emergency department visits in the United States for suspected suicide attempts were about 51% higher for adolescent girls and 4% higher for adolescent boys compared to the same time period in early 2019, according to the advisory.
During a public presentation Wednesday, Van Kirk and others with Alaska’s health department described the importance of actions like decreasing stigma around mental health, making sure youths feel valued, bringing more mental health professionals into schools and increasing young people’s sense of connection to their culture and to their communities.
“With help comes hope,” Van Kirk 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.
[Correction: This story has been update to correct the spelling of Leah Van Kirk’s name.]