Bush Alaska spends too much time mourning

The story in Monday’s paper said that urban and rural kids have about the same rates of death by guns. The difference is apparently that in the cities, the deaths are usually murders. In rural areas, it’s accidental shootings and suicides.

Anyone who had lived in Alaska for more than ten minutes can attest to the truth of those findings.

A few months ago a former reporter and I discussed Bush Alaska and its seemingly intractable problems of substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide. She said it had once been suggested to her that the reason things were so difficult in the Bush was because death was so frequent that the villages never reached the point where they stopped mourning. If you never get beyond mourning, you never start healing.

Death in Bush Alaska overwhelmingly has a young face to it. And even more overwhelmingly, suicide in the Bush has a young Native male face to it.

Going to the funerals of Elders who lived long and productive lives is sad but part of life’s ongoing rhythm. Going to the funerals of people cut down by diseases over which they had minimal control is sad but a sadness often relieved by the knowledge that they are no longer suffering.

But going to the funerals of young men who choose to end their lives for reasons most of us can never comprehend goes beyond sad. It begs the question of what is missing in their lives. What are we as a society not seeing that is so dramatically and negatively affecting them?

It’s almost too easy to point the finger at drugs and alcohol.  That they play a role in many suicides is not a big secret. But it isn’t only young men in the Bush who abuse these substances. So do women, girls, middle aged men and women, grandmoms and grandpops. The reach of substance abuse is long and leaves no age group unaffected.

Which brings us back to the question as to why young men in particular are prone to suicide when drinking while others pass out and live to drink another day?

Another easy target to finger in the quest for answers is firearms. They are ubiquitous in our remote villages as protection from predators and a means of feeding your family.  Children in the Bush are as familiar with guns as I was with the Mickey Mouse Club.

So why is it that the one age group seems to pick up guns and point them at their heads more than any other?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “The suicide rate for American Indians/Alaska Natives was 10.84 per 100,000, higher than the overall US rate of 10.75. Adults aged 25-29 had the highest rate of suicide in the American Indian/Alaska Native population, 20.67 per 100,000. Suicide ranked as the eighth leading cause of death for American Indians/Alaska Natives of all ages.”

But here is the scariest statistic. “From 1999 to 2004, American Indian/Alaska Native males in the 15 to 24 year old age group had the highest suicide rate, 27.99 per 100,000…” That is almost triple the overall US rate.

If you look at employment among Alaska Native males and females, you find that women are more often employed and, if employed, are more likely to be in jobs that are full time and not seasonal.  Maybe if you have a purpose in life, a reason to get up the next day, something that makes you feel as though you and your life have value, you don’t have to look for relief from the emptiness at the end of a gun barrel. Maybe part of the answer is somewhere in there.

Some families who lose a loved one to suicide have the kind of problems that cause you to think, “Well, what can you expect?” But there are many families in which love and stability and boundaries were firmly in place and the young men grew up knowing they were cherished and valued. Yet they still put a bullet to their head.

I don’t have an answer. But I do know that whoever said the Bush never gets a chance to stop mourning and start healing expressed a truth any of us with roots in Bush Alaska know all too intimately.