Study: Young Alaska Native men at high risk for suicide

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Young Alaska Native men between the ages of 20 and 29 are at extremely high risk for suicide, killing themselves at a rate more than 13 times the overall national average, a state government study released on Monday showed.

The study by the state Department of Health and Social Services, which tracked records from 2003 to 2008 and examined a myriad of demographic groups, said that lack of opportunity and identity issues may be among factors contributing to the phenomenon.

"Profound changes have occurred over the last 75 years among Alaska Native people," the survey said. "In the past, more males aged 20-29 years would have had families of their own and would have been involved in subsistence activities in order to support their families."

Alaska Native refers to indigenous people from Alaska, comprising Inuit, Indian and Aleut.

The study said psychosocial factors which may contribute to the higher suicide rate include "confusion around identity and purpose resulting from perceived discordance between traditional and contemporary values, and a low sense of agency to control their own life or to fulfill their ambitions due to lack of jobs and training infrastructure in rural communities."

Overall, the suicide rate in Alaska was 17.7 per 100,000 for the study period, compared with a national rate of 11.6 per 100,000 recorded in 2008, the report said.

For Alaska Natives as a whole, the suicide rate during the period was nearly four times the national rate. For Alaska Native men aged 20-29, the rate was 155.3 per 100,000, according to the study.

Suicide rates for Alaska Native men were three times the rate for Alaska Native women, according to the statistics compiled in the study. Researchers believe vulnerable Native women were more likely to use suicide-prevention services, said Deborah Hull-Jilly, a public-health specialist with the department's Alaska Section of Epidemiology.

Common threads for the recorded suicides were alcohol abuse, mental health problems and geographic isolation, according to the study. Residents of small villages appeared particularly vulnerable, with suicide rates in remote villages more than twice those in larger rural hub communities.

"That was eye-opening," Hull-Jilly said, adding that follow-up studies with data from more recent years were planned.

One positive sign researchers found was that Native suicide rates had leveled off overall after growing dramatically in the past decades, she said.