Sen. Lisa Murkowski says she has asked Rep. Don Young to apologize to Alaskans for hurtful comments he made to high school students struggling with suicide.
"Earlier today, I talked to Don Young and encouraged him to rethink the past few days and apologize to Alaskans so we can all be rowing in the same direction against suicide," Murkowski said in a Facebook post Thursday.
The request came after Young stunned students and staff at Wasilla High School on Tuesday -- just days after the suicide of a student -- by saying suicide was caused by a lack of support from parents and friends. That comment and others Young made at the school offended many in Alaska, where suicide rates are some of the highest in the country.
Young made more inflammatory comments Wednesday at a senior center, including that federal largesse was a contributor to suicide in Alaska because it had created an entitlement mentality.
Murkowski said in her Facebook post that Alaskans appreciate Young's "willingness to speak from the gut." But on an issue like suicide, which casts "an enormous and dark shadow across our state, much more thought needs to be given before speaking up."
"Words matter, and I hope Don can recognize the need to apologize to all Alaskans who have been impacted by the tragedy of suicide," she said.
Murkowski has pursued answers to the state's decades-old suicide epidemic, such as organizing hearings in Bethel in Southwest Alaska and at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in recent years after spikes in suicides, in an effort to hear solutions from communities that have been especially hard-hit.
In a press release issued Thursday night, Sen. Mark Begich, who is also running for reelection, said "I believe Congressman Young's statements were uninformed and inappropriate."
The statement said Begich had received dozens of calls to weigh in on the subject. "In addition to the alarming rates of suicide in our rural communities, especially among young Alaska Native men, there are troubling rates of suicide in the ranks of Alaska's military and among our veterans," the statement continued, in pat. "We need to encourage open conversations about this tragedy -- not make hurtful statements."
Meanwhile a Washington Post article examined Young's claims that "largesse from the government" was in part to blame for suicide. After crunching numbers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Post concluded "it's clear that there's no strong linkage between use of government assistance and the suicide rate."
Asked if Young would apologize, Young spokesman Matt Shuckerow said the congressman will be speaking publicly at the Alaska Federation of Natives annual convention in Anchorage on Friday and might address the issue there. Shuckerow also pointed out that Young has expressed his condolences to the student's family and the Wasilla High School community.
Murkowski's post Thursday followed an earlier Facebook statement she made the day before that resulted in a firestorm of angry responses. A petition at change.org had also been launched asking Murkowski to retract the political endorsement she'd given Young.
Murkowski had written that people had asked for her thoughts on what happened at the high school. But the rest of her initial statement did not name Young or clearly address his comments.
Instead, Murkowski spoke about Alaska's high suicide rates -- double the rest of the nation's and quadruple in villages. She said prevention is the responsibility of entire communities -- mental health professionals, family, teachers, students, counselors and elders.
She said suicide leaves a ripple effect that needs to be addressed with compassion, and added that when a life is lost, "we need to remember to be there for the survivors, the friends and family left behind."
She ended: "Words matter. And when it is hard to find the right words, perhaps a caring hug is the best response."
Update: This story was updated on Oct. 24, 2014 to add a statement from Sen. Mark Begich and summary of a Washington Post article on the subject.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing