NOTE: Ms. Julie Niven is social worker practicing in the Bering Straits region of Alaska.
Introduction – Suicide from the Alaska Perspective
It’s a sad fact that suicide is common within every state of our nation. According to the most recent statistics available, the state of Alaska has the fourth highest number of suicides in the United States. The Bering Straits region ranked first in 2003 then dropped to second in 2004 for the most suicides in the entire state. In Alaska, rates are highest for people between the ages of 15 and 29 and attempts by Natives outrank those by non-Natives four to one.
Suicide Risk Factors
Alcohol use is a huge risk factor for suicide. Often a person who dies by suicide has been drinking prior to his or her death. Depression is another major risk factor. Between 90-95 percent of people who attempt suicide are suffering from some sort of mood disorder or substance use disorder.
Suicide occurs most often in the fall and spring. April and May are the months when the most deaths occur. (It may be that when others begin to cheer up after the long winter, those who are depressed feel even more alone when they don’t cheer up like their friends and family.) Unmet expectations before and during the holidays, and the letdown after the holidays pass, make this another time of risk.
In Alaska, it is rare to meet someone who is not in some way touched by a family member’s or friend’s death by suicide. The worst part of this is that a history of suicide in one’s family can raise the likelihood that others in the same family may make attempts as well. Nine out of 10 attempts occur at home.
A person who has been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused is also more at risk for suicide. Abuse harms a person’s sense of self and can lead to feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, and depression. Unresolved grief around the memory of a loved one who has died can also be a risk factor. Thinking that one will never fit in at school, and that life is hopeless when so alone can also be a risk factor as well.
The Warning Signs
Eighty percent of people who attempt suicide tell someone about their intentions prior to trying to take their own life. It is important to take all threats of self-harm seriously. Watching for signs of depression within ourselves as well as others has prevented many suicides. Getting yourself or your loved one help before things get worse is the key to saving a life.
The warning signs that someone may be thinking of suicide include:
- Talking about death or suicide
- Feeling hopeless, helpless, or worthless
- Not enjoying things one usually enjoys
- Using drugs or alcohol
- Feeling tired or sleeping all the time
- Not having an appetite or overeating
- Crying a lot or being angry a lot
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Feeling easily frustrated and giving special things away
No One is to Blame
Though suicide is often preventable, it is important to be clear that when a person sadly follows through with his or her threats, no one is to blame. Sometimes no matter how hard we try, those we love still act on their hopeless feelings and end their lives. After a suicide has occurred, it only creates additional trauma to look for fault in those around us or within ourselves. Instead, this is the time when a community or family most needs to pull together to help one another. A survivor’s support group, if available in one’s community, can help by providing a safe and understanding place to vent one’s feelings.
Those Left Behind
Those left behind will often experience a wide variety of emotional as well as physical symptoms. Some of the physical symptoms may include pain, stomach upset, lack of energy, problems with sleeping and appetite changes. Anger, guilt, sadness, shame and helplessness are all common emotions that need to be shared with family or a trusted friend. When we share our feelings with others, we have the opportunity to work through our grief in a healthy manner. Talking through our feelings helps us regain the peace we need to continue living our lives in a productive manner.
There are several 24-hour, 7-days-a-week toll-free hotlines you can call if you have thoughts of hurting yourself or know someone whom you think is considering suicide. One of these hotlines is the National Hopeline Network: 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433). Another hotline number is the Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Children, Adolescents, and Suicide
Children and adolescents present special populations at risk for suicide. Here are some of the risk factors they face:
- Relationship problems
- Feeling hopeless
- Parents not getting along and not being involved with their children
- Anger at and wanting to “pay back” parents when mad at them
- Alcohol and drug problems in the family and community
- Feeling worthless
- Because other kids are doing it
These are some of the reasons why youth think suicide is the only option, according to a recent poll conducted at a small school in a remote village in Alaska.
Why, when children seem to have their whole lives ahead of them do they think such thoughts? Why, when childhood is supposed to be the most carefree time of one’s life do children get in such moods? These are questions we all ask ourselves. Again, it is important to open a conversation with a child who voices a thought of self-harm. It is vital to find out more about what the child is thinking and get him or her help. A child’s problem may seem small to an adult observer, but often to that child, he or she can see nothing but the problem.
It’s not easy being a parent. Nor is it always easy to be a child. Parents cannot be expected to have all the answers. Again, it is important to seek help from others trained to manage such difficult situations when they arise. One of the most important jobs a parent can do is provide safety and structure for their child. Parents can do much to stop the violence children act out on each other as well as themselves. A lot of a little four-letter word (L-O-V-E) goes a long way towards preventing suicide.
It’s hard to listen to a friend or family member tell you that they don’t want to live anymore, or that they want to kill themselves. It’s hard to feel this way yourself! Don’t wait to get help if you, your loved one or your child is depressed. Help is always available and suicide is preventable. You can make a big difference and maybe even save someone’s life and/or your own. Recognize the signs, break the silence, save lives!