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‘Don’t feel like it’s not your place’: Advocates encourage discussion, openness about suicide in prevention efforts

Undated shot from Anchorage.
Undated shot from Anchorage.(KTUU)
Published: Dec. 8, 2020 at 7:08 PM AKST
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Information in this story may provoke strong emotions for some people, as it pertains to suicide. If you or someone you know is in need of crisis intervention, call Alaska’s CARELINE anytime, any day of the year by dialing (877) 266-HELP, or dial 911. You can also text CARELINE advocates by sending “4HELP” to 839863.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - For most, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven challenging, especially when it comes to mental and emotional health. That’s raised further concern about suicide in the state, particularly as Alaskans get to the coldest, darkest days of the year.

“These are very, very difficult times,” said Ketchikan Wellness Coalition Executive Director Romanda Simpson. “And if we put the whole weight on one person, I don’t think anyone could do it by themselves. If we know somebody who is experiencing suicidal thoughts and ideations, it is all of our responsibilities to do that intervention, to be that intervention.”

Both researchers and advocates say that thus far, suicide rates are relatively stable compared to previous years, at least upon first glance at raw data.

“We know that in 2019, we did have an increase in our suicide rates, which I think has put us all at a place where we’re very concerned about what we’re going to see during the pandemic,” said Leah Van Kirk, Statewide Suicide Prevention Coordinator for the State of Alaska Division of Behavioral Health. “So far, a preliminary look at our data has not shown a significant increase in our suicide rates. However, we still need to analyze that data as it comes in.”

The seemingly level data, which, again, still needs official analysis, is through September of 2020. Typically, suicide data isn’t completely analyzed until almost a year later, said Van Kirk.

“I wouldn’t say we have any data at this point that suggests our suicides are skyrocketing as a result of the pandemic,” she added, in comparing numbers from 2017, 2018 and 2019. “It’s hard sometimes to really evaluate the data when we may not have it all; it takes time to evaluate. But so far, we are not seeing a significant increase.”

Without any increase, however, Alaska’s suicide rates remain high. A State of Alaska Epidemiology bulletin released in September showed that from 2016 to 2019, two of every three violent deaths in Alaska were results of intentional self-harm. Van Kirk said there is even more concern regarding Alaska’s adolescent suicides: Alaska’s average annual adolescent suicide rate was 28.8 per 100,000. That’s 3.2 times higher than the average annual U.S. rate from 2016 to 2018.

If the 2020 numbers end up showing that there wasn’t a drastic increase in Alaska suicides, that doesn’t mean people across the state aren’t struggling immensely, particularly with the social distancing and isolation further caused by the pandemic. Most youth who would otherwise be in the classroom, for example, are instead disconnected from school, their usual instructors and their peers. Many of the elderly, who are in a high-risk category for contracting and being affected by COVID-19, haven’t been able to have physical contact with anyone outside their homes.

Still, while Alaska remains different in policy, practice, location and more from the rest of the country, there are a lot of resources across the state, with access increasing every day.

“A lot of people think, ‘Well, we’re remote, we don’t have anything,’” Simpson said, “but there are lots of amazing resources, especially now, with COVID.

“When you look at what’s happening in the world right now, you’re realizing there’s a lot of stuff we have no control over,” she continued. “But at the same time, communities are recognizing we have control over some things. In particular, small, rural Alaska communities, we have a tendency to be able to bounce back and support each other.”

With more virtual options, and the willingness of the state and federal government to open up to them, she said, outreach may be different, but it is also providing opportunities to those who may otherwise not have sought help.

“People would choose not to seek help because they didn’t want to go to a location where everybody would know what they’re going for,” Simpson said. “So in these cases, we have more access to mental health resources that we might not have had access to before.”

There remains, however, the challenge of reaching those who do not have internet access. For this, advocates must rely on in-person services when possible, such as various crisis phone lines - including the statewide CARELINE, as well as several locally-operated numbers - and residents taking it upon themselves to recognize the signs and assist others when they can.

“Suicide prevention is a very sensitive field, and everyone in Alaska has been affected by suicide,” said Ingrid Stevens, Injury Prevention Manager for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Wellness and Prevention Department. “Even personally, within my own direct family and extended family, suicide has impacted us all. I think about it as, I’m helping my family, my community, because we’re not mutually exclusive: They’re one and the same.”

Stevens said much of the prevention aspect is about actively looking for signs or situational changes, since someone’s thoughts of suicide are not always apparent. Those might include withdrawl, giving away items known to be of special or sentimental value to the individual, or the person using phrases such as, “I can’t do this anymore.”

She also said one way of going about finding out if a loved one is considering suicide is by asking directly if they are thinking about it, especially if they’ve made comments alluding to being unable to go on or push forward anymore. Talking openly, asking questions and listening to others’ stories is also part of ANTHC’s Tell Your Heart Story movement, which includes advice for how to approach the topic of mental health and suicide.

“The key is, you don’t make it unclear in any way that you’re asking about suicide,” Stevens said. “It’s cues, verbal or even non-verbal, folks acting a little more restless, substances. But the way we actually reframe things is that, when you ask directly, it’s about telling your story. Once you ask that question, it’s about listening to that person’s story.”

Outside of deep discussions, there are lots of other things individuals can do to support others and themselves too. Simply reaching out to a friend or family member to check in on how they’re doing is a good start. Carrie Rowland, a program coordinator for ANTHC, said people should look to their strengths and what’s brought them joy in the past, as well.

“Sometimes, we don’t realize what strengths we have in our lives,” she said. “It could be family, having positive friends, having mentors or healthy activities to do. If you start feeling down, just kind of recognize those things you do normally or used to do that bring you joy, and do those things to reset.”

Rowland, who said those who are struggling should also aim to do something to lift their spirits, suggested journaling as a route for self-expression. Some outdoor activities that are often accessible to Alaskans, and have proven helpful in many cases, include being in nature, participating in a creative hobby such as taking photos, and getting active as is possible, even if that means simply going out and getting fresh air on a short walk.

Another thing to consider, Van Kirk said, is whether or not someone is currently experiencing a crisis. In such a case, safeguarding their home by temporarily removing firearms can make a life-saving difference.

Another thing to consider, Van Kirk said, is if someone is experiencing a crisis, safeguarding their home by temporarily removing firearms can make a life-saving difference.

“There’s a lot of little things we can all do to support suicide prevention,” Van Kirk said, adding that while everyone is experiencing stressors right now, what works for one person might not work for another. “But absolutely, we know that connectedness is a protective factor against suicide, and even after the pandemic has passed us, really building those connections with people, reaching out to others... letting them know they’re not alone, listening to what they’re going through.

“Also, remember to bring hope back into the picture,” she said. “People can get through this. People do get through this.”

Resources

Alaska Responders Relief Line, dedicated to first responders, frontline workers and their families: (844) 985-8275

CARELINE, open to anyone in Alaska: (877) 266-HELP

Ketchikan Wellness Coalition and Ketchikan Cares Line: (907) 225-CARE

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, national network of crisis centers: (800) 273-TALK

Peninsula Community Health Services Crisis line: (907) 283-7511

Veterans Crisis Line, (800) 273-8255, press 1

Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Suicide Prevention Program, collaborating with community health partners and programs: (907) 729-3751

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