Study: Suicide rates for Natives remains high

By Mark Thiessen
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) August 2012

The average suicide rate of Alaska Natives was more than two times higher than non-Natives, according to a report covering a six-year period and released by state health officials.

The report chronicles the characteristics of suicide among Alaska Native and non-Native people from 2003 to 2008, and finds there were no statistically significant changes over the six years. It also offers recommendations on how to best address the issue.

This was the latest data available, said Deborah Hull-Jilly, health program manager for the injury surveillance program at the state health department’s epidemiology section. She was co-author of the report with Jessica Craig of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Epidemiology Center.

Information from 2009 to 2010 has been collected. It will be added and released by late summer or early fall, she said.

This study looks at data differently, Hull-Jilly said, and focuses on Alaska Natives.

“We wanted to set a foundation for future work, so we can further explore why these rates are so much higher,” she said.

The report says 65 percent of 1,347 violent deaths in Alaska between 2003 and 2008 were suicides.

It finds that the average annual suicide rate among Alaska Natives was 40.4 per 100,000 people, compared with 17.7 per 100,000 people in the non-Native population.

Alaska Natives who committed suicide were younger than non-Natives, with two-thirds of the deceased under the age of 29. By contrast, only one-third of non-Natives who committed suicide were 29 or younger.

Alaska Native males between the ages of 20 and 29 had the highest suicide rate, at 155.3 per 100,000 people.

Firearms were the most common method of suicide, and most people killed themselves in homes or apartments.

Not every suicide victim was tested for alcohol or drug content. But of those who were, 54 percent of Alaska Natives and 47 percent of non-Natives had alcohol present in their system at the time of death.

However, the authors didn’t want the results to be skewed since not every victim was tested for drugs and alcohol.

Of those who were tested, one in five tested positive for marijuana. The study authors aren’t sure what that association means.

“It’s an important topic for us to look at in the future and work within our agencies to find out ways where we can improve, in this case, toxicology testing,” she said, adding the state medical examiner has been helpful in trying to get that information.

The report says 42 percent of all people who committed suicide were described as being depressed.

Suicide rates for Alaska Natives were highest in the Northwest Arctic, followed by Norton Sound and the Yukon-Kuskokwim areas. The suicide rate of Alaska Natives living in hub communities (25.8 per 100,000) was much lower than those living in non-hubs (60 per 100,000).

One of the report’s recommendations was to provide village-focused suicide prevention programs in these smaller communities.

“One size does not fit all, and that’s really important for us to acknowledge, that we may need to tailor services for our targeted communities,” Hull-Jilly said.

The report also recommends that protocols for reporting surveillance data to regional and community-based prevention programs be established statewide to permit timely prevention efforts, and calls for a comprehensive public health approach to prevention.

Ways to target Alaska Native males between the ages 20-29 should be investigated, the report says. Gun safety, through the use of gun locks and gun safes, should also be promoted, and outreach efforts to friends and family of people who commit suicide should be provided.