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Suicide deaths among young Alaskans down in 2020, but attempts up, state health department says

Published: Dec. 15, 2021 at 6:42 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The number of young Alaskans who died by suicide in 2020 decreased by about 50% compared to 2019, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services says data shows. That comes after 2019 showed a significant increase in suicides by youth and young adults from the year before.

That news is tempered by the revelation that suicide attempts have gone up among Alaska’s youngest residents, with an increase in attempts among children aged 11-14.

Leah Van Kirk, part of the state’s suicide prevention team in the Division of Behavioral Health, shared data in a presentation Wednesday that shows that Western and Northern Alaska have some of the highest rates of suicide deaths per 100,000 people in population, but that large numbers of suicides in Alaska’s urban areas show that both types of areas are struggling.

“Alaska has very high rates of suicide, some of the highest in the nation,” Van Kirk said. “We’re talking about people, and often times people that we have loved and known and supported throughout our lives.”

In 2019, suicide was the leading cause of death for Alaskans between 15 and 24. When the pandemic hit, state prevention specialists say they knew they had to keep focus on their mission.

“We knew that we had a particularly vulnerable youth and young adult population as we entered the pandemic, so that was really important that as we started putting prevention measures in place, that we really targeted our youth,” Van Kirk said.

Van Kirk said the data is not yet definitive, but is promising based on what had been expected.

“That was very encouraging, because we definitely were concerned about the impact of isolation and being not able to attend school and engage in those social relationships and focus on that connectedness that we know is so important to youth,” Van Kirk said in a previous presentation a week ago.

She added that some factors of the pandemic may have had a positive effect on some kids, including being able to be connected through virtual technology, and that being at home with families may have helped some youth keep that connection.

Dr. Mishelle Nace, a Fairbanks-area pediatrician, said last week that some people did see benefits.

“There have been a certain amount of families that have reported incredible positives, that getting back to basics with their children, learning to cook and bake and understand them ... so I think there is a section of the population that did get a positive effect from it,” she said.

However, Nace continued, that’s not the case for all, citing the number of conversations and emergency department referrals her office was seeing.

“We definitely saw an increase in the number of visits related to mental health, not just depression, but depression and anxiety, eating disorders,” Nace said. “The number of kids who had those change in feelings, and the change in concerns for their mental health, went up in terms of visit numbers.”

Van Kirk and others on the suicide prevention team said kids having connection with between three and five supportive adults that are not their parents or teachers helps reduce their risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts, substance misuse, violence and unsafe sexual activity. Other protective factors for young people are having social and emotional competence and self regulation skills, and a positive school climate.

Whether any particular factor contributed to the spike in suicides in 2019 is difficult to track, Van Kirk said. What can contribute to the difference between the lower rate of suicide deaths and higher rate of suicide attempts though, may be the method used. Some methods of suicide attempt are more likely to result in death than others. There’s also a disparity in that young women attempt suicide at a higher rate than men, while young men are more likely to die from suicide than women are.

Younger teens are more likely to attempt suicide with over-the-counter medications, Van Kirk said, noting that it’s important that parents and caregivers know what they need to do to keep their homes safe.

She also said that supporting people who are struggling or who have attempted suicide is an important act.

“Nine out of 10 people who attempt suicide and survive, do not go on to die by suicide, so it’s really important that we understand that providing support to people after an attempt is incredibly important,” Van Kirk said.

If you are considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Stop Suicide Alaska at 1-877-266-HELP.

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