Breaking the link between childhood trauma and suicide

The first day of the conference, “Trauma and Suicide: Breaking the Link,” attracted about 185 participants, mostly from Juneau. All the sessions take place at Centennial Hall and continue into Friday. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
The first day of the conference, “Trauma and Suicide: Breaking the Link,” attracted about 185 participants, mostly from Juneau. All the sessions take place at Centennial Hall and continue into Friday. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Close to 200 people in Juneau joined forces Thursday to break the link between childhood trauma and suicide. They’re taking part in a two day suicide prevention conference. Day one focused on establishing the trauma-suicide link.

After analyzing data from state surveys on trauma and risky behaviors, Alice Rarig says she was taken aback.

“It shocked me to see that one in five young people think about suicide and that more than half of them have major problems with sadness or feeling alone or not having adults in their lives to talk to,” she says.

Rarig is a retired state health planner and a member of the Juneau Suicide Prevention Coalition. She says she’s also troubled by the amount of youth who’ve experienced bullying, violence, sexual abuse and other traumatic experiences.

The coalition identified childhood trauma to be a leading factor contributing to suicide in Juneau.

Patrick Sidmore is a planner with the state Department of Health and Social Services. He helped coordinate the Adverse Childhood Experiences study in Alaska. For the past 20 years, the national study has shown that traumatic experiences, like abuse, neglect or growing up with substance abuse, may lead to serious health problems into adulthood.

“In the original study, they looked at suicide attempts and adverse childhood experiences and it had the strongest correlation of any of the items they looked at,” Sidmore says. “For example, 80 percent of suicide attempts can be tied back to adverse childhood experiences. This is the rate similar to lung cancer and cigarette smoking.”

Sidmore says many scientists think adverse childhood experiences actually cause suicide. He says addressing trauma will help prevent suicide.

Shirley Pittz says one of the ways this can be done is examining the quality of relationships for kids. Pittz is an early childhood expert with the state’s Office of Children’s Services.

“What are we doing to support families so that they can have good nurturing relationships with kids? What kind of messages does our community give about the value of children and how we’re supporting kids? All you need is somebody who cares about you and that can get you through a lot, so how can we make sure that every kid has that?” Pittz asks.

The rate of suicide in Juneau is similar to the state’s. There were six suicides in Juneau in 2013, similar numbers in prior years. It peaked in 2007 with nine. The Juneau Suicide Prevention Coalition formed the following year.

Walter Majoros is the coalition’s chair. He’s also the executive director of Juneau Youth Services. He says the number of suicides may have gone down, but “there are a lot of deaths that have occurred in recent years, particularly with people in their 20s, that have been drug overdoses, so we have to look beyond the real numbers to what’s actually happening,” Majoros says. “And so in that sense there are still a lot of deaths that are occurring within our community that maybe aren’t being labeled as suicide, but if you look a little deeper, I think they really are.”

Coalition member Alice Rarig adds the numbers don’t account for suicide attempts or suicidal plans and thoughts.

She says preventing suicide means also preventing other bad things

“We’ll probably reduce the fighting, the bullying, the unsafe sex, the self-harm through alcohol use and substances,” Rarig says.

On day two of the conference, participants will focus on putting their knowledge to work on a community level.