EDITORIAL: Suicide prevention
How best to push back the darkness, let in the light?
No one is sure why Alaska's suicide rate has risen for four straight years and is the nation's highest. Alaska can round up the usual suspects -- alcohol and drug abuse, hopelessness, isolation, poverty, wretched family lives, lack of opportunity, sexual abuse, biological factors, culture, history, racism -- but we still won't have all the answers. We do have some answers, however. And as Susan Soule, mental health consultant and former director of the state's suicide prevention program, points out, we know the important questions.
Soule quoted the late Edwin Schneidman, the father of suicide prevention, who said the work boiled down to two questions:
"Where do you hurt? How may I help you?"
Alaska needs more people who can ask those questions and have the skill and care to listen to the answers, comprehend them and know where and how to help -- or find help.
And, especially in Bush Alaska, we need more Alaska Natives doing the job, for they can connect in ways that outsiders from different cultures usually cannot.
And we need to make clear to both communities and individuals that we care. That alone might serve to tip the balance between life and death. Both Soule and James Gallanos, the state's current suicide prevention coordinator, point out that suicidal people struggle with a mix of reasons to live and reasons to die. Knowledge that a person or community matters, that others care, is a reason to live, an antidote to the isolation that contributes to suicide.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski has asked the federal Department of Health and Human Services to pay for a $1.2 million study aimed at reducing suicide rates among Alaska Natives. The study would include a genetic component that might open the way to more treatment options. It's hard to get excited about another study. As Soule points out, current information about who is killing themselves and in what parts of the state might be more valuable in preventing more suicides, and probably wouldn't cost $1 million to get.
On the other hand, Gallanos said the study Murkowski has endorsed includes much more than genetic and biological research, which makes sense because suicide prevention is a complex challenge. The more rigorous research we have, the more we know and the more effective we can be at prevention.
For example, Gallanos would like to see more comparative research to explore the differences between strong, healthy rural Alaska communities and those wracked by suicides and other woes. What's working in the healthy places? Will it travel to help heal suffering communities? What can the state do to help local communities find their own solutions? What can we do to encourage what the professionals call "protective factors" -- safe communities, strong and healthy families, opportunities, hope, resiliency?
Meanwhile, what should we do as individuals?
Most of us will not be researchers, or village counselors, or trained "gatekeepers," community members able to recognize people at risk of suicide who can talk with them and guide them to help.
But we can support such programs, support funding to put more people on the ground where needed, whether in Anchorage or Alakanuk. And we can support programs such as Alaska's Careline, the state's only toll-free suicide prevention and crisis intervention hot line.
We can remember, as Gallanos said, that "everyone's a gatekeeper." Don't brush off a friend's talk of suicide as a joke. Be aware; don't judge; listen.
And know where to send someone, or call yourself, for help. (Careline: 1-877-266-4357; National Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255).
With all the resources in the world, we can't prevent every suicide. Alaska's high rate didn't happen overnight and we won't bring it down overnight. But we can keep on caring in the face of the numbers, refuse to go numb and help our fellow Alaskans see more reasons to live.
BOTTOM LINE: If we care enough, we can bring Alaska's suicide rates down.