Report: Suicide is Alaska’s fifth-leading cause of death

Every year, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services releases a Vital Statistics Report: a breakdown of data gathered the previous year. That report provides all kinds of statistics, including marriages, divorces, births and deaths.

Yet again, Alaska has a higher-than-average rate of suicide. The report shows that for 2017, suicide was the fifth-leading cause of death in the state. Nationally, it’s the 10th-leading cause.

Danny Gladden is chief clinical officer for Akeela, a statewide agency that runs Ketchikan’s Gateway Center for Human Services. He said there are a number of reasons why people die from suicide.

“A leading contributor to suicide death would be accessibility of alcohol, the accessibility of guns, and the underutilization or lack of access or, frankly, the complicated process for early intervention, prevention and treatment of mental illness,” he said.

In terms of actual numbers, 197 Alaskans died from suicide in 2017. Of those, 118 used a gun, according to the state report. The report doesn’t indicate how many may have consumed alcohol beforehand.

Alaska has some additional unique variables. People in remote areas might have few if any treatment and intervention options, for example. And then there are Alaska’s extra-dark, extra-cold winters – especially farther north.

Gladden said anyone can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK). He said callers can be anonymous, and will be able to talk to a trained, compassionate person who will give advice and direct callers to a local provider.

Gladden said there are options in Ketchikan and throughout Southeast Alaska for those seeking help with any kind of mental health or substance abuse treatment. Akeela-Gateway offers both.

“But there are a number of wonderful providers. In Southeast Alaska, we have SEARHC, based out of Juneau but serving a number of surrounding areas. SEARHC is a Native provider. We have KIC, which is providing both mental health and substance abuse services in Ketchikan, and then in Juneau, there’s also JAMHI, which is the community mental health center for Juneau,” Gladden said.

He said there also are private providers.

“And I can tell you, any one of these providers, if you arrived and maybe they weren’t the best fit for you, would direct you to the right location,” he said. “All of us are committed to getting folks connected to care. There’s no wrong point of entry.”

Gladden said different approaches to treatment allow individuals to choose what works best for them. Opioid addiction, for example, can be treated with a combination of behavioral modification and medication to curb withdrawal symptoms.

According to the state report, unintentional injuries and poisonings, which includes drug overdoses, was the third-leading cause of death in Alaska in 2017. The report shows 143 Alaskans died last year from overdoses. Of those, the majority were from opioids.

Gladden said the Ketchikan Public Health Center offers Narcan, which can save the life of someone overdosing from opioid abuse. He said any entity that has a first-aid kit also should have a Narcan kit.

“Go up to Public Health, let them train you, and have a Narcan kit at your organization,” he advised. “You never know when you’re going to encounter someone who’s needs that life-saving opioid reversal.”

The kits are free, Gladden said, including the training.

According to the Department of Health and Social Services report, 4,415 Alaskans died in 2017. The top 10 causes, in order, were cancer; heart disease; unintentional injuries and poisonings including overdoses; chronic lower respiratory disease; suicide; stroke; diabetes; chronic liver disease and cirrhosis; Alzheimer’s disease; and homicide.

Self-harm and suicide are complex. Most people who consider suicide do not ultimately kill themselves.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide or just needs someone to talk to, you can call the Alaska Careline at 1-877-266-4357 (HELP) or text 4help to 839863 Tuesday-Saturday 3-11 p.m. Outside of Alaska call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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