Alaska in Brief

Use of new 988 suicide and crisis hotline shows Alaskans are willing to seek help, officials say

By: - September 9, 2022 5:55 am
The rising sun lights the sky over frozen Norton Sound in Nome on the morning of the 2018 winter solistice. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

The rising sun lights the sky over frozen Norton Sound in Nome on the morning of the 2018 winter solistice. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Alaska in July switched its suicide hotline system to an easy-to-dial 988 hotline, calls have increased by 22% – an indication that more people in crisis are reaching out for help and now know how to do so, state health officials and suicide prevention experts said on Thursday.

Increased use of the line is a good sign, said state Sen. Tom Begich, a member of the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council.

“You want that call number to go up,” Begich said in an online news conference held by the Alaska Department of Health. “The more that we get the word out, the more likely we’ll see that number increase. And that’s a good thing, not necessarily a bad thing.”

The transition to the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline system from a previously used hotline puts Alaska into a national network of around-the-clock crisis responders. Under the system, all calls from a 907 area code are routed to Alaska-based responders.

The 22% increase in use since July was reported by Susanna Marchuk, executive director of Careline Alaska, the Fairbanks-based organization that operates the system and connects callers with crisis responders.

Careline Alaska has been operating a toll-free crisis hotline for 17 years, Marchuk said. In anticipation of increased use after the transition to the 988 system, the organization boosted staffing, she said.

“The services offered through our call center are a key piece of Alaska’s crisis care continuum, and we’re grateful for the opportunity to support vulnerable Alaskans on a greater scale,” she said.

The news conference was part of a public-awareness campaign by the Department of Health that is kicking off events during September, which has been designated as Suicide Prevention Awareness Month in Alaska.

Alaska’s suicide rate is twice that of the nation, and it is the second-highest among all U.S. states, after Wyoming, officials said.

Every suicide has ripple effects, said Dr. Anne Zink, Alaska’s chief medical officer. For her, the issue is personal, she said.

“My sister died 16 years ago from suicide. And there is not a single day in my life that goes by without thinking about that loss,” she said.

But nine of 10 people who attempt suicide do not go on to die by suicide, “and there is so much hope,” she said.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, suicide deaths in Alaska have not increased, Zink said. But emergency medical records show that there has been a statistically significant increase in suicide attempts, particularly among adolescents and the elderly, she said.

The serious mental health problems predate the pandemic, she said.

“We actually saw a decrease in life expectancy prior to the pandemic, primarily from deaths of despair,” she said, listing suicide, overdose and alcohol-related injuries as causes. Though that is a national trend, “we’ve been really struggling with this in Alaska for some time. And we’ve seen that accelerate during the pandemic,” she said.

The department also announced that its Division of Behavioral Health has received a federal grant of $3.6 million to help prevent suicide and suicide attempts among the state’s youth and young adults. The grant is from the Garrett Lee Smith State/Tribal Youth Suicide Prevention and Early Intervention Program. The program is named after the son of a former U.S. senator who died by suicide.

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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.

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