Early data shows Alaska suicide rate stays constant, overdose rates increase

Heroin fentanyl pills. (Drug Enforcement Administration)

Alaska’s state Section of Epidemiology published preliminary data this week showing Alaska’s suicide rate hasn’t risen over the first three quarters of 2020, though unintentional drug overdoses are continuing on an upward trend. 

Alaska’s suicide rate remains among the highest in the country — around 30 deaths per 100,000 people. It’s the leading cause of death among Alaska youth over the age of 15. Beverly Schoonover, director of the statewide Suicide Prevention Council, said this has been an issue long before COVID-19. 

“Last year, [suicide] attempts, ideation and completions were much higher than we want to see. This has been an ongoing problem, and it’s not just the pandemic that’s contributing to that.”

Schoonover said issues like economic inequity and childhood trauma have largely driven Alaska’s high suicide rates. Officials are still compiling data to see if the pandemic has had an impact on the numbers this year, but anecdotally, she said it has definitely taken a toll on mental health. 

“What we have heard from many people and from many communities is that there’s increased anxiety, increased depression for kids [and] for adults.”

She said people with existing mental health concerns have seen those exacerbated, and people who’ve never had serious concerns are developing anxiety or depression and seeking help.

The Alaska Careline crisis hotline saw a 51 percent increase in the number of callers this year, according to the state’s report.

“The increase in Careline call volume may indicate that more people are seeking assistance due to pandemic-associated stress,” the report said.

The state reported the number of suicidal ideation and attempted suicide cases in emergency rooms has remained relatively consistent over the last few years.

Experts aren’t sure what’s causing the increase in overdose deaths. Schoonover said local police are reporting interruptions in illegal drug traffic during the pandemic.

“So to replace that … illegal suppliers have been using more fentanyl in their mixes. And so that partially could be contributing to the overdose rate, because fentanyl is so much more deadly.”

Fentanyl is a highly potent opioid, estimated to be 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

The department expects to have more information after all the 2020 data is compiled.

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, the Alaska Careline is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The number is 1-877-266-HELP.

Kavitha George is Alaska Public Media’s climate change reporter. Reach her at kgeorge@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Kavitha here.

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