By Trevor Storrs, Executive Director, Alaska Children’s Trust
In 1998, the issue of suicide became real to me. A team member for a local Anchorage service provider, who was loved by all, committed suicide and it was my responsibility to notify the team, the children we served, and other community members. It is a day I will never forget. Since that day, three other friends have committed suicide. Suicide has plagued Alaska for too long.
Alaska has one of the highest rates of suicide per capita in the country. In 2013, the rate of suicide in the United States was 12.57 suicides per 100,000 people. Alaska’s rate in 2014 was 22.3 suicides per 100,000 people.
September 10 marks World Suicide Prevention Day. One day is not enough but it can be the first day of many where we take action to ensure our loved ones have the support and help they need to get beyond the idea of suicide.
One of the most at-risk populations are our youth. A recent article by the Population Reference Bureau, “Suicide Replaces Homicide as Second-Leading Cause of Death Among U.S. Teenagers,” showed that suicide attempts from year to year have been relatively stagnant. What’s alarming is the increase in the numbers of suicides that resulted in death over the last 15 years.
Suicide has now become the second-leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States. This surpasses homicide deaths and is projected to surpass traffic accident deaths. American Indian and Alaska Native girls had a 60 percent increase in suicide rates, and now represent the highest teenage suicide rates in the nation. The greatest incidence of suicide is in rural areas, likely due to social isolation, prevalence of firearms, economic hardship, and limited access to mental health and emergency health care services.
One of the most concerning findings of the article is the higher suicide completion rate. This presents a significant challenge. In the past, failed suicide attempts gave a person an opportunity to seek professional help. The higher rate of suicide success diminishes these “second chances” significantly. It also increases the likelihood that other at-risk teenagers will mimic the same behavior, as they are exposed to increased suicides within their peer group.
Prevention programs are doing their best, but I believe we need go deeper to get to the root cause of suicide. Early adverse childhood experiences (toxic stress/trauma) like child abuse or being exposed to domestic violence dramatically increase the risk of suicidal behaviors. Prevention needs to begin with reducing the level of toxic stress/trauma children, families and communities are experiencing on a daily basis. We also need to support efforts in the implementation of protective factors and building resilience.
Without addressing early childhood trauma and giving kids adequate coping skills to use as they progress through some of the toughest years of their life, we are simply not going to be able to turn the tides on the rising rate of suicide successes. However, by recognizing the adverse experiences we all face and teaching our children how to react and heal is the ultimate suicide prevention technique.
As a community, it is our responsibility to ensure children and families live in safe, stable and nurturing environments. It is these types environments that promote the protective factors and build resilience to combat trauma and suicide. We begin to build these environments through the promotion and inclusion of culture – all cultures. Children and youth should have two to three adults in their lives, other than their parents, who they feel safe with and trust.
We can also help by knowing the warning signs of suicide, like being preoccupied with death, having no hope for the future or engaging in self-destructive behavior. Also, monitor your children’s social media. Help children and youth build a network of friends. Become part of a community that supports other families. For more ways to prevent suicide go to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Helpguide.org or Stop Suicide Alaska.
Together, we can change this trend and ensure all children and youth grow up with the resilience to overcome the traumas of life and be happy, healthy, successful members of our community.
Trevor Storrs is the executive director of Alaska Children’s Trust, an Alaska nonprofit dedicated to preventing child abuse and neglect.