By Sam Buisman – Covenant House Alaska Staff Writer
Today marks the 19th annual World Suicide Prevention Day, and we at Covenant House Alaska want to honor this day with an honest discussion on the scale of this problem and reflection on the work we do to abate it.
Suicide prevention is integrated into our day-to-day operations at Covenant House Alaska. The youth that we serve are at one of the greatest risks of suicide in the entire US, demanding vigilance and compassion of our staff and programming. Yet, we are ready to meet this challenge with the enduring and unconditional love we bring to all of our pursuits.
“We’re not going to give up on you, we’re going to care about you,” said Chief Program Officer Heidi Huppert. “We’re gonna have laughs, we’re gonna have heart, and that’s what’s gonna keep us connected. And when you’re not doing well, we’re gonna know it.”
Suicide Among Alaskan Teens
While suicide is a serious national problem, it hits Alaskan youth harder than almost any other group.
However, these numbers soar upwards amongst Alaskan teenagers. Alaska has the highest teen suicide rate in the country, with 34.0 suicide deaths per 100,000 teens ages 15-19. This triples the national teen suicide rate of 11.1 deaths and leaves suicide as the leading cause of death for Alaskan teens.
Disturbing as these numbers are, experts believe they underestimate the actual scale of this problem due to gaps in data and a lack of reporting. Regardless of such caveats, these numbers already show that suicide is an exceptional and endemic threat to Alaskan teens.
Suicide and Homelessness
Complicating this problem even further is the unique connection between suicide and homelessness.
If a person lives through a period of homelessness, they often endure multiple experiences that the National Health Care for the Homeless Council identifies as increasing one’s risk of suicidal ideation, including “anxiety and stress,” “family conflict,” “isolation and loneliness” and others.
Quantifying this risk, some studies have determined suicide rates to be 10 times higher among people experiencing homelessness when compared to the general population.
Akin to suicide at large, this phenomenon is also more pronounced amongst teens. A 2011 study found that while adults begin to exhibit suicidal ideations after an average of six months of homelessness, for children, this average drops to a single week.
The data makes it clear: the population that we serve at Covenant House Alaska, Alaskan youth experiencing homelessness, are at acute risk of suicide.
Yet, Huppert says that an awareness of this risk allows our staff to take what she sees as the most important step in suicide prevention: responding to our youth when they reach out.
“When our young people say that they’re feeling some kind of way, the first thing that we do is believe them,” said Huppert, “and then you’re going to get the services that they need, in real-time, with urgency.”
Covenant House Alaska provides our youth access to mental health professionals and counseling services on site. Flanked by our behavioral, physical health and substance abuse services, these programs make up our frontline against suicide.
Additionally, Huppert makes it a priority to extensively train Covenant House Alaska programming staff who work directly with our youth in suicide prevention. As 48% of suicide attempts occur within 20 minutes of the decision to do so, this includes the ability to rapidly recognize suicidal behavior and direct the youth to the services they need.
Our suicide prevention efforts go beyond these in-the-moment services to the structure of Covenant House Alaska. Recognizing that LGBTQ+ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their peers, our Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) staff works to keep Covenant House Alaska a safe and inclusive place for all of our youth.
“When there’s a feeling of not belonging, that could lead to suicide,” said DEI in Administration Director Tafi Toleafoa. “Just making sure that we love them and that they feel loved is what DEI is about. Celebrating why we’re different.”
For our other populations that are particularly at risk, we provide similar suicide prevention services tailored to their lived experiences. Our partnership with Southcentral Foundation allows us to supply indigenous Alaskans, who have the highest suicide rate of any racial or ethnic group in the US, with healthcare conscious of their rich culture and history.
Finally, as Huppert describes, the backbone of suicide prevention at Covenant House Alaska is the relationship that our staff builds with our youth.
“If we were talking like, ‘Here’s a frequency and a dosage of a magic medication,’” said Huppert, “ours is relationships.”
It is through this trust and genuine care that Covenant House Alaska can and hopes to continue providing a lasting solution for our at-risk youth.
Huppert sees some cause for optimism regarding suicide prevention. As the negative stigma surrounding mental health issues has declined, so have the accompanying inhibitions to talking about it.
“The good news is we have young people that are being raised in a place where it’s okay to say that you’re not doing well,” said Huppert. “When I used to work on the floor, they would say to me, ‘Hey, you should go talk to so and so, they’re not doing good.’”
Even with this pearl of hope, there remains plenty of work to do in this state and country to prevent youth suicide. But however long this road may be, Covenant House Alaska is ready to walk it.
If You Need Help
If you are struggling with suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The state of Alaska also has a local network of hotlines, which can be found here.