Looking at Alaska’s high suicide rate

By Kaysie Ellingson

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Sergeant Slawomir Markiewicz flips through the pages of his notebook containing dozens of names of the victims his unit has investigated. Some are highlighted blue, others are pink. Each name written in blue ink represents a suicide in Anchorage.

Markiewicz became the head of the Anchorage homicide unit in 2005. He knew when he took the position that suicides were going to be some of the most common cases. At least that’s what his years as an APD officer taught him. But it wasn’t until he actually started tracking the numbers that he realized the magnitude of the problem.

For every homicide we have in Anchorage...there are four suicides, Markiewicz says.

“For every homicide we have in Anchorage,” Markiewicz says, “there are four suicides.” In 2014 there were 15 homicides and 60 suicides. This year’s numbers are similar. Since mid November there have been seven suicides in Anchorage. If those were 60 homicides, he explains, people in the city would demand change.

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Sgt. Markiewicz has worked in the homicide unit for the Anchorage Police Department since 2005.
              Photo by Kaysie Ellingson / Alaska Public Media

For Markiewicz, his handwritten record of victims is easier to reference than simply keeping it on a computer. “If someone asks me about a specific person I can flip directly to their name.” This personal record helps him find commonalities in the suicide cases he deals with. Was the person a male or female? Did they use a gun? Was there substance abuse involved? Most of the time the answer to that last question is yes.

Statewide the majority of suicides occur within the Alaska Native population, but Markiewicz can only speak to what he sees in Anchorage. And what he observes as flips through the history of his cases is that ethnically the demographic is diverse. He points out one highlighted name. The victim in this case was a teenager. He took his life a few months ago.

We are sometimes our biggest enemy, Markiewicz says.

The job of a homicide detective is mentally taxing, Markiewicz says. “It is especially for patrol officers.” He puts it like this: A person may have a traumatic experience in their life once, these officers may have those experiences two or three times in a shift. “I won’t say that people get used to it,” he says. “But people do learn to focus their energy on finding solutions for the victims, because we can’t fall apart.”

Despite the statistics, Markiewicz recognizes residents have a tendency to focus more on the homicide rate. “Way more people die from suicide than from homicide, yet we are afraid that people will hurt us,” he said. “We are sometimes our biggest enemy.”

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The high rate of suicide is a statewide issue that has gained much attention in light of the four suicides in the small community of Hooper Bay and the very public case of a man who jumped to his death at the annual Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in October.

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Alaska has the third highest suicide rate in the United States, right under Montana and Wyoming. According to a 2015 survey released by the Centers for Disease Control, for every 10,000 people in Alaska 23 die by suicide. But that statistic isn’t a fair assessment of rural Alaska. Eric Boyer, training coordinator for the Trust Training Cooperative at the Alaska Center for Human Development, explains the rate of suicide among Alaska Natives is even higher.

There are lots of theories. Maybe it’s the long dark winters or the isolation of the largest state in the U.S. While these factors may contribute to the problem studies suggest the roots may go deeper.

According to Patrick Sidmore, health planner and research analyst at Alaska Mental Health Board, historical trauma endured by Alaska Natives, as well as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), put certain groups at a higher risk of suicide. Historical trauma among Alaska Native populations can have a lasting affect for multiple generations. Sidmore cites forced placement of children in boarding schools, destruction of culture and overt racism as examples of trauma. “These events can trigger the poor outcomes such as substance abuse,” he explains. “This can perpetuate problems down the line.”

This occurrence is known as transgenerational trauma—or trauma that is passed down from one generation to the next through social or biological means.

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Yaari Walker grew up in Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island. After struggling through suicidal thoughts and alcoholism, she now devotes her time to sharing her story with youth around the state.
              Photo by Kaysie Ellingson / Alaska Public Media

LISTEN: Yaari Walker shares her story of overcoming suicide

According to Sidmore, groups that have a history of trauma, whether that trauma is recent or occurred long ago, are at higher risk for experiencing adverse childhood trauma. In terms of ACEs, Sidmore says that these experiences are linked to adolescent and adult suicide attempts. An adverse childhood experience could include events ranging from physical, mental or sexual abuse to substance abuse exposure. These events have a lasting effect on a person’s health and well-being.

According to a 2001 study 80 percent of attempted suicides among adolescents were directly tied to an adverse childhood experience–for adults it was 68 percent. “In other words,” says Sidmore, “if ACEs were completely eliminated, there would be 80 percent fewer adolescents attempting suicide.”

It is possible to overcome childhood trauma. It’s a matter of that person obtaining “trauma informed” help. Sidmore explains this form of mental health intervention helps a person understand and alter their previous coping mechanisms. Healthy coping skills involve learning to be emotionally self-aware and to make safe choices.

But the the first step in getting help is speaking up and seeking it, a difficult move because of the shame inducing stigma attached to mental illness. This shame is what people like Sarah Davies, Yaari Walker, Eric Boyer and others are working to shatter, simply by talking about it.

WATCH DAVIES’ STORY HERE:

Sarah Davies, a high school teacher in Anchorage, has had her own struggle with mental health. For Davies, a not-so-rare genetic mutation caused her to have suicidal thoughts accompanied by physical ailments. “When I was able to find a way to let go of the shame, I was able to be the kind of advocate I needed for myself,” she says. “I was no longer shrouded with all these ideas of character flaw in people who experience mental illness.”

Her views on mental illness have shifted throughout her recovery process. “We have to understand that our concept of mental illness is very old,” she says. Through the understanding of the genomic approach, Davies believes that soon the way civilization perceives mental illness will not shame the people who suffer from it.

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Tel Finnerty is a confident, upbeat junior from Service High School. He is one of the lead presenters in You Are Not Alone—or YANA—an organization that involves peer-to-peer training in suicide prevention. Two girls from West High School started the group. Both had good friends who came close to, or attempted, suicide.

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 Tel Finnerty is a junior at Service High School and his been involved with You Are Not Alone since it started in 2014.
              Photo by Kaysie Ellingson / Alaska Public Media  

What started as an initiative to provide suicide prevention training and bracelets with the suicide careline number around Anchorage campuses, quickly turned into a statewide program. The students go school to school, from Anchorage all the way to Kotzebue, leading trainings in the QPR approach (question, persuade the person to get help and refer them to an adult for help).

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map  Kathryn Cosello (above) and Katherine Murray (below) worked together to start You Are Not Alone in 2014.
              Photo by Kaysie Ellingson / Alaska Public Media  

Finnerty has been with the group since it started two years ago. At the time he didn’t know much about the topic of suicide. Just as the program was gaining momentum, Finnerty lost one of his friends to suicide. “I don’t want anyone to have to go through that or experience that,” Finnerty says.

I don't want anyone to have to go through that or experience that, Finnerty say.

In the two years since its beginning, You Are Not Alone has distributed tens of thousands of bracelets and reached thousands of students around the state. They train students to spot suicidal behavior and what to do when they see it.

This program is just one example of the several efforts being implemented across the state. In a report prepared by the UAA Center for Behavioral Health Research and Services, evaluating the Alaska State youth Suicide Prevention Project, it stated that the prevention plan is based on the idea that everyone in a community must work together to be effective in suicide prevention.

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 Justin Pendergrass, singer songwriter from Wasilla, talks to high school students about the process of writing the theme song for YANA.
              Photo by Kaysie Ellingson / Alaska Public Media  

Eric Boyer, who specializes in suicide prevention echoes this sentiment. “If [young people] can become competent to understand something that’s an issue in our society, like suicide, then they’ll grow into adults and we can change the paradigm for adults in our society,” he says.

If young people can become competent to understand something that’s an issue in our society, like suicide, then they’ll grow into adults and we can change the paradigm for adults in our society, Boyer says.

Boyer believes everyone who works with the general population, from medical workers to store clerks, has the opportunity to prevent someone from killing themselves. His goal is to equip these people with the proper training–what they can do, what they should say and how they can get that person help.

Boyer breaks down the warning signs of suicide into two categories: How is this person connected to people around them? And what gives that person purpose in life?

He explains that if a person who is regularly engaged at work suddenly becomes disengaged, that’s a red flag. Misusing substances to the point that it affects their life, is another. Severe depression can surface in a number of ways including poor hygiene, lack of sleep, not eating well and not exercising. But these signs must be taken in context, which is why it’s easier for those closest to the person to recognize them as true red flags.

An example he offered from his years of experience is veterans coming home from war, sometimes injured, may have to readjust what they consider their purpose in life is. That person may be more vulnerable to suicide.

If a person recognizes these signs in a friend or coworker, Boyer says, “Invite them out for a cup of coffee to see where they’re at.” The main message he urges is to be there for them.

If you or a person you know is considering help, don’t wait

Call 911 for immediate emergency intervention.
Call 877-266-HELP (4357) for the 24/7 Alaska Careline.
Go to the closest hospital or medical facility.
Text “4help” to 839863 Tuesday-Saturday 3pm-11pm.