Commentary: Preventing suicides in Alaska

No one is sure why Alaska's suicide rate has risen for four straight years and is the nation's highest. Alaska can round up the usual suspects — alcohol and drug abuse, hopelessness, isolation, poverty, wretched family lives, lack of opportunity, sexual abuse, biological factors, culture, history, racism — but we still won't have all the answers. We do have some answers, however. And as Susan Soule, mental health consultant and former director of the state's suicide prevention program, points out, we know the important questions.

Soule quoted the late Edwin Schneidman, the father of suicide prevention, who said the work boiled down to two questions:

"Where do you hurt? How may I help you?"

Alaska needs more people who can ask those questions and have the skill and care to listen to the answers, comprehend them and know where and how to help – or find help.

And, especially in Bush Alaska, we need more Alaska Natives doing the job, for they can connect in ways that outsiders from different cultures usually cannot.

And we need to make clear to both communities and individuals that we care. That alone might serve to tip the balance between life and death. Both Soule and James Gallanos, the state's current suicide prevention coordinator, point out that suicidal people struggle with a mix of reasons to live and reasons to die. Knowledge that a person or community matters, that others care, is a reason to live, an antidote to the isolation that contributes to suicide.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Anchorage Daily News.