Alaska and the youth suicide problem: break the silence to stop the epidemic



BY Alice Podenzana

In the State of Alaska, at 53 km north of the Arctic Circle on Alaska’s western coast, there is a village called Kotzebue. Over 3,000 people live there, and a majority of them are natives Iñupiat Eskimo.

Teressa Baldwin’s family is originary from Kotzebue, where the young girl spent her childhood. But in 2001 a tragedy struck Baldwin’s family. When Teressa was only five years old, her uncle, who lived with her and who was like a father figure to her, took his own life. This was the first time Teressa Baldwin closely met the suicide’s ghost; but it was not the last one. Suicide has been a constant presence in her young life: before her tenth birthday, she had known six people who committed suicide, and at the age of sixteen years old she had the hardest loss ever, her boyfriend. Loneliness, sadness, insecurity. These were the feelings that invaded her, and the only hope she had relied on leave her native village to leave behind the past. “I thought I would leave behind the isolation and thoughts of being depressed,” she said, “but I can tell you first hand that you cannot run away from suicide.”

As Teressa, many young people experimented the loss of familiars or friends in Kotzebue, as in other villages of the Northwest Arctic Borough. “Here suicide has always been a solution to a problem, it has always been the unique option,” Teressa said, remembering her life experience in Kotzebue. “It’s like a natural reaction to problems, and it shouldn’t been like that.”


Suicide is a serious public health problem in U.S.. In the National Vital Statistic Reports published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2012, with reference to the previous year, suicide appears as the tenth leading cause of death among all the group ages, and as the second cause for young people between 15 and 24 years old, preceded only by road traffic accidents.

Research economists Karen E. Norberg, David M. Cutler, and Edward L. Glaeser, established in their report Explaining the Rise in Youth Suicide, that “suicides rates among youths aged 15-24 have tripled in the past half-century, even as rates for adults and the elderly have declined. For every youth suicide completion, there are nearly 400 suicide attempts”. But in last decade situation seemed to be better: according to the last report on mortality data, published in 2010, suicides rates for 15 to 19-years-olds peaked around 1990, while for 20 to 24-years-olds between 1994 and 1996; since then, number of youth suicides began to descend constantly in all the states, with the only exception of Alaska.

According to the U.S. State Suicide Rates and Rankings Among, published in 2010 by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Alaska is the second state with the highest rate of suicides nationally, preceded only by Wyoming, and the first one considering the youth suicides’ rate. A constant increase of young deaths by suicide was recorded in last ten years in the state, passing from an average of 26.9 Alaskan youth who committed suicide for each 100,000 population in 1999, to an average of 46 in 2010. In this age group, by suicide are Native Alaskan or American Native.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to find an absolute cause to explain why people decide to leave everything killing themselves. Despite the various and conflicting positions of the experts on the subject, everyone agrees on the fact that suicide always hides a very subjective and personal element that can not be classified, and which makes impossible to search for definite answers. But it’s fundamental to analyze the methods, and make assumptions, in order to develop the right prevention.


Lisa Marin Wexler is a researcher of the Department of Public Health at the University of Massachusett. She started living in Alaska as social worker, and then she moved into working in youth suicide for 15 years, doing research with local people. A lot of the work she has done has been figure out why and what’s going on in native Alaskan communities, above all those one based in the Northwest Alaska, the most affected by youth suicides, that include Kotzebue and other 11 smaller villages. In her paper Identifying colonial discourses in Inupiat young people’s narratives as a way to understand the no future of Inupiat youth suicide, published in 2009, Ms Wexler give a different perspective on suicide, different form the common one according what suicide would be just a biomedical issue. Ms Wexler analyzes the link between an historical and ongoing colonialism and the “unprecedentedly youth suicides rate” that many of these Alaska Native areas are suffering, stressing how the colonial consciousness detrimentally would affect youth, and bring them to self-destruction.

As Ms Wexler highlights in her paper, the first thing to take into consideration is the Northwest Alaska’s history. “Northwest Alaska has hosted many outsiders since the middle of the nineteenth century, when European and Russian whalers converged in the Arctic waters,” she wrote. The arrival of colonizers had profound consequences on native population. Many Inupiat died from epidemics of tuberculosis and Spanish influenza brought by foreigners. But the most severe consequences were at the cultural level, starting with the creation of the first schools in 1890s. “Schools had a profound effect on traditional socialization practices, because the family was no longer the primary institution educating young people,” Ms Wexler says.

The schools imposed a education totally based on Western culture, without taking into account the native culture and, indeed, discouraging the learning of ‘Inupiaq, the native language of the community, destined to become extinct. The system of traditions and beliefs that characterized Inupiat culture gradually weakened, and a deep cultural conflict was created: on one side the Inupiat culture, characterized by the importance of the community and the sharing; on the other, the traditional Western culture, based on individualism and on the belief that each individual is a unique and independent, with the right to make its own decisions without the need of the group. The obvious result was a clash between generational groups, and at the same time an internal conflict to every young Iñupiat. “This untenable situation leads many to feel like they have reached an existential dead end.” What it is fundamental is to find a way to prevent, and understand how colonialism can be linked to the ways young native people think about themselves and the reality that surrounds themselves, and how it could influence the decision to leave forever this reality, is one possible mechanism to save future lives.

In 2010, the last year for which complete numbers are available, firearm was the main injury mechanism used to commit youth suicide in Alaska, as in many others U.S. states, like Wyoming, the second State with the highest youth suicide rates. Alaska and Wyoming are also states with high rates of people owning firearms, in particular handguns. Is this just a case? According to the Harvard Center, this is a trend that can be applied to all U.S. states: the higher the number of weapons held, the greater the suicide rate is. It would suggest that an easy access to firearms might increase the risk of suicide. A delicate subject, hard to prove; what is sure is that the debate about the role of firearms in relation with suicide is one of the most intense in all U.S.

The lethality of means would have a lot to do with suicide and it’s an important part of the problem, considering that a suicidal act with gun is fatal in 85% of cases, while for example a suicidal act with pills is fatal in just 2% of cases, as established the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. According to a suicide prevention campaign at the Harvard School of Public Health’s Injury Control Research Center, called Means Matter, what characterizes many suicides is the impulsivity of the act, often committed in a state of anguish. In this mental situation the access to a lethal means as a firearm would give people more chances to die than to survive. Is totally agree with it Trena Anastasia, Research Scientist at the University of Wyoming, who emphasizes how firearms constitute a greater danger compared to other means: “Firearm is the most lethal form of suicide deaths, and because of it people are more likely to die in an attempt to suicide.” Many studies have been realized on the subject. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control published the result of its research in 2004, revealing that two-thirds of all completed teenage suicides involved a firearm, and in the the majority of the cases firearms were owned by someone living with the young person.

Few days ago, while at the White House was being discussed the possibility to restrict access to firearms through a new legislation, well known U.S. newspapers, as the New York Times and the Boston Globe, published articles where they emphasized the fundamental role played by a firearm at the time to commit a suicide. According to a the Boston Globe, having a firearm in the home increases the possibility that someone within that home will commit suicide by a factor of 2-10.

Still, there are specialists in the field who don’t agree with this position, highlighting other key factors. Among the ranks of the opposition there is Karen E. Norberg, psychiatrist of National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and author of a report mentioned above. “My own hunch is that high rates of youth suicides in Alaska and in many other states might have most to do with cultural factors, with a strong emphasis on individualism, limited access to mental health services, high rates of alcohol use and perhaps demographic and economic factors, as rural isolation, or technical change in extractive industries,” he says. But Ms Wexler, who lived close to Native communities in Alaska, has no doubts: “in all Alaska every single person own a gun, and I firmly believe that this fact increase the number of youth suicide tremendously.”


In Alaska, isolation is an issue. “Have a suicide thoughts in Alaska is not having opportunities. Here you have schools, and you have some sports, but you don’t have many opportunities to experience the real world,” Teressa says. “A lot of people have never left Alaska or their own region, so they don’t understand what the world really has to offer.”

Today, Teressa Baldwin is an 18-years-old, attending her first year at the University of California, San Diego. She did not know what went through the heads of his friends when they chose suicide, and she neither knew which factors more and more drive Alaska young people to take this decision. The main problem was that nobody talked about it. Family, relatives, schools, institutions, they were all afraid to worsen the situation among youth. Suicide was a taboo topic, as many others that each society has, and silence prevailed on the subject. But Teressa, a young suicide survivor with an hard life experience, felt the obligation to do something. Her reaction is called Hope 4 Alaska, and it’s a nonprofit organization she created last year to promote suicide prevention across the state, using an innovative way: share experience of suicide survivors, and talk about it. She reached many school all over Alaska, receiving the Lu Young Leadership Award from the Alaska Federation of Natives, President Obama’s Champion of Changes Award, Student Leader of the Year from Alaska Association of Student Governments, and the Alaska Marketplace Award which rewarded up to $25,000 to the efforts of Hope 4 Alaska.

“It has been proven that if you talk about an issue and make it known and spread awareness, the epidemic problem can be solved and lives can be saved,” she said last year during the presentation of her project at a meeting of the Alaska Association of Student Government. “Alaska held the highest suicide rates in the nation for almost all our lives. Now, we are number two in the nation because of how many people have pulled together to make it an everyday awareness.”

This article was written for the class of Reporting & Writing – Master in Digital Journalism