Killing Ourselves to Live in the Last Frontier

Standing alone under the northern lights

I live in a place where the dark winter sky sings with stars, where the lights come out to play and dance in the cold, but the beauty of the last frontier is not always enough to warm a troubled heart. Pioneer days have long since passed, but in many ways they endure in Alaska–where people often build themselves from the ground up to enjoy a life full of adventure and hard-earned fishing and hunting trips. That’s what I had my heart set on when I left California for the interior, over three thousand miles from the place where I was born. When I decided to move to Alaska, I did all of my research–or at least I thought I did–what I didn’t do was look up the information regarding untimely deaths, the lack of sufficient health care, especially regarding mental health issues like depression and the unfortunate turn out of many cases–suicide.

You can’t blame me for not thinking to research it though. Not everyone can spout off statistics like that, unless you live in Alaska where it’s commonplace to know that Alaska has the highest rate of suicide per capita in the entire country. In 2007, the rate of suicide in the United States was 11.5 suicides per 100,000 people; comparatively in Alaska it was 21.8 per 100,000 people. If you were to ask any given Alaskan if they knew someone here who had committed suicide, chances are they could name at least two–more people die by their own hand here than by homicide, and a vast majority of these people have a diagnosable mental or substance abuse disorder.

It’s important to recognize this as the epidemic it is–it’s not just Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), it’s not just the harsh dark winters and the insomnia-ridden, sunny summers, it’s not just the vitamin D deficiency. It can also be explained in part by the lack of balance between the male and female population, where more often than not, men end up alone for years. Whether they’ve gotten divorced, widowed, or just ended up a lonely bachelor, the correlation, between the higher male population and the drastically higher percentage of men (78%) who end their lives too soon, cannot be lightly pushed aside. We can’t just blame it on the ladies though, men have a higher likelihood of working back-breaking manual labor, where they run the risk of serious injuries like concussions and other debilitating conditions. They end up out of a job they trained in for most of their adult lives and then out of the blue they no longer have a way to make ends meet without running the risk of further injury.

I have decades of experience dealing with depression myself, but I know that depression can be caused by a myriad of different individual situations and can only be dealt with on an individual level. There is no one thing that will help every person who suffers from a mental condition or substance abuse issue, so don’t go looking online for a solution and don’t rely on someone’s advice to “exercise more,” or “eat better,” these things may help with overall brain chemistry, but they are not a cure and they are not necessarily the only thing a person needs to be able to cope with their individual needs.

Seek help…

If you’re the one suffering from depression, another mental condition, or substance abuse issue that may be making you feel like ending your life, please seek help. Say something, tell someone, it may feel embarrassing at first, but it is the most important step to returning to a healthier state of mind. Call a suicide prevention hotline, if you live in the United States you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

There may be people who will tell you that by expressing your genuine feelings and experiences so openly is attention-seeking. Those people may not understand what it’s like to be in your shoes, so while it may be hurtful to hear, they don’t necessarily comprehend the need to express that you are there for other people that may need help. So express your story, allow other people to understand that they are not alone in their own struggles. If I’ve learned anything about having to deal with depression for the last two decades, it’s that the accompanying feelings of sadness, loneliness, lack of self-worth, anxiety, and hopelessness are not easily fixed unless we pursue a solution. Solutions are found when we allow ourselves to be a little vulnerable sometimes and reach out for help.

Be the help…

Not everyone is capable of asking for help, more often than not it’s difficult to see the people who are struggling. They may be one of the happiest people that you know, actors like Robin Williams who made it his job to make other people smile shocked the world when he took his own life. So allow yourself to be the help someone may need–it may not be convenient, it may not be fun, but you may save someone’s life, someone that you may care deeply about and that’s worth more than you could ever imagine. If you see something, say something, get someone help if you think they need it.

With that, I leave you with a beautiful song by John Prine, that someone special to me played as their plea for help–because they didn’t have the words to articulate their own needs.

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