Columns 2012

Suicides in Bush Alaska

Sometimes it seems as though we’ve been hearing about the high suicide rates in Bush Alaska for an immensely long time. Every few years another study is done which comes up with the same depressing results concerning suicide statistics as the previous study. Young men are most vulnerable. Substance abuse is usually involved. Despair about the future is frequently cited as a cause, often along with the pain and problems resulting from growing up in an abusive home.

Every time one of these studies is released showing that Alaska has the highest suicide rate in the nation and Bush Alaska has a dramatically higher rate than Alaska as a whole, a lot of soul searching occurs. What have we done wrong that these statistics seem so intractable? Why isn’t anything working? Why are successes so few and far between? Those people for whom these statistics are the realities of their workaday lives go back to the drawing board and try to improve the services they offer in the hope that they will somehow make a dent in the problem.

What’s perhaps even scarier is that if you factor in deaths due to alcohol and drug related “accidents” through drowning, motor vehicle or gun mishaps, the statistics on suicide would be even more dramatically frightening. And, if we are to be very honest, those deaths are often nothing more than suicide in disguise.

I lived in Barrow for 28 years and saw my share of the sorrow, grief and sadness that accompanied the passing of our young people. No matter how functional or dysfunctional your community is, the death of a young person hits hard. They aren’t supposed to die. They are the future. They’re supposed to be excited about moving forward with their lives, getting married, getting a job, supporting their community with their subsistence activities. So why are they killing themselves instead of looking forward with anticipation?

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are suicides in Bush Alaska. But there are also commonalities. There is probably a reason why young men are the most vulnerable. At a time when they should be starting on their future, many can only see their past. They have no vision of a future.

I remember someone saying to me once, as we stood at the casket of a young man who had drunkenly driven an ATV into a pole months after his high school graduation, that the young man’s best years were behind him and he had nothing to look forward to, so why go on. The young man had been a basketball star. He’d barely qualified to get a high school certificate and had hung in only to play basketball. But that was over now. The cheers were silenced and he had nothing to fall back on. His family was abusive and alcoholic and that basketball court had been his only escape – and now someone else stood at its center.

If we want to truly impact the problem of suicides in the Bush, then we have to start before these boys become young men. We have to start with their families. We have to somehow make a dent in the still overwhelming problems of substance abuse in our villages. We have to throw a wrench into the cycle of domestic violence that is often passed from father to son.

Doing this will not stop all suicides. Depression is a real illness that needs significant intervention and treatment to allow a person to live a full life. But if you don’t have a supportive, caring family who even notices you might be depressed, you don’t stand a chance.

Under the best of circumstances graduating from high school is a scary time in life. Suddenly adulthood looms large. We’re expected to start making adult decisions about our future. College or no college? Technical school? A job? If so, where? What kind? How will I ever support myself and a family?

Young people, especially young men in our villages, need love, support, understanding and role models long before they reach the stage where they put a gun in their mouths or a rope around their necks. To stop the suicide epidemic in the Bush, we need to first heal the ailing families that make suicide such an attractive alternative.