Survey reports sharp increase in suicide attempts, vaping among Alaska high school students

A recent survey from the state Department of Health and Social Services shows a sharp increase in vaping and suicide attempts among high school students in Alaska.

The Youth Risk Behavior Survey is conducted every two years among almost 2,000 high school students across the state.

The survey says one in four students reported “currently vaping” in 2019. “Currently” means at least once in the past 30 days. That’s an increase from one in six from 2017.

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Christy Knight is with the department’s tobacco prevention and control program. She says the cost of vaping for teens is the impact on brain development.

“So there are many youth who are not necessarily aware when they use the products that they contain nicotine, which is highly addictive,” she said.

Just like in combustible cigarettes, nicotine impacts attention and learning memory.

“We have over 50 years of research on combustible cigarettes, whereas e-cigarettes are still fairly new and we’re still learning the long term and short term health impacts of e-cigarettes,” she said.

Graphic from the 2019 Alaska Youth Risk Behavior Survey showing an increase in suicidal thoughts and attempts among Alaska high school students.

The risk survey also reported an increase in mental health distress among high school students. One in five (19%) of students surveyed reported having attempted suicide at least once.

That’s higher than the last survey in 2017.

Leah Van Kirk is the suicide prevention coordinator with the DHSS.

“What that really tells us is that it’s really important for us to continue working to support youth and to really promote protective factors that help us be resilient and reach out and get help when they need it,” she said.

Van Kirk says along with the increase in suicide attempts, it’s important to emphasize that many students have access to lethal means.

For the first time the survey asked if students have access to firearms.

“Almost 50% of our youth have access to a loaded gun,” she said. “So that means if your child or friend’s child is experiencing a difficult time or crisis, have your firearms stored off site, maybe ask a friend ‘Hey, can you hold on to my firearms for a little while our family’s going through a hard time right now.’”

For individual families, it’s important to take preventative measures. Van Kirk says it’s okay to ask if a loved one is having thoughts of suicide.

Anyone in distress can also call the Alaska Care Line at 877-266-4357.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misspelled Leah Van Kirk’s name. The story has been corrected.