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Research Matters No. 80: How Do Community Characteristics and Alcohol Control Affect Suicide Among Young Alaska Native Men?


May 16, 2014 - Suicide rates among Alaska Natives rose rapidly in the 1960s and have remained high since then, with the highest rate among young Alaska Native men living in Alaska's small rural communities: 20 times the rate among Americans as a whole. But suicide rates among young Alaska Native men are considerably higher or lower in some small rural places than in others. In a recent analysis, Matthew Berman, professor of economics at ISER, looked at how community living conditions—including local alcohol control—affect suicide rates among young Alaska Native men. Whether local alcohol control helps prevent suicides is an important issue in small rural places: alcohol is involved in most deaths by suicide among Alaska Native people.

The analysis is based on suicide data, local alcohol control status, and community-level social, cultural, and economic characteristics for Alaska Native men ages 15 to 34, living in 178 small rural communities during the period from 1980 through 2007. During that time, specific community characteristics were associated with either higher or lower risk of suicide:

• Going dry did not affect affect suicide rates. About 100 small rural communities restrict alcohol under state law. But controlling for various other community characteristics, this analysis found no significant difference in suicide rates in communities that do or do not prohibit sale and importation or possession of alcohol. 

• Suicide risks were lower in rural communities that were on the road system and that had higher incomes—reflecting more job opportunities—as well as more married couples and elders who pass on traditional cultural values and skills to younger residents.

• Communities with higher risks of suicide tended to be more remote, had few non-Native residents, and showed evidence that they faced particular challenges in integrating modern and traditional cultures.

• Rural communities with higher suicide rates were more likely to adopt alcohol control measures, perhaps because residents thought it might help prevent suicides. But while there is no evidence that local alcohol control did prevent suicides, other studies have found that such controls have helped reduce other forms of trauma and violence in communities.

See the full analysis, Suicide Among Young Alaska Native Men: Community Factors and Alcohol Control (PDF, 561.5KB). It was recently published in the American Journal of Public Health.

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