Young People Are Struggling
It’s a hard time to be a young person in Alaska. Children and adolescents in our state face a series of challenges, from education to bullying and mental health problems, which have profound consequences for the state at large. Recent data released by Alaska Public Health Analytics and Providence Hospital has revealed alarming statistics regarding the mental health and well-being of young people in Alaska. The state leads the nation in the rate of young people who die by suicide. Currently, one in every five children in Alaska will attempt suicide.
This data is deeply concerning, especially added to the fact that there is a stark contrast between rural and urban Alaska when it comes to teen suicide rates. Between 2016 and 2020, the number of teen suicides per 100,000 people in Northern Alaska reached a staggering 150, while in Anchorage, it was 19. In late 2020, Beverly Schoonover, who was director of the statewide Suicide Prevention Council, said to Alaska Public Media that the prevalence of childhood trauma and issues like economic inequality have been the drivers of this issue well before the pandemic.
Added to all of this, the state’s mental health infrastructure is not equipped to deal with the current crisis. In 2019, a study conducted by the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at USC found that, while Alaska has a larger than the already sub-optimal nationwide average number of mental health professionals, shortages are still present throughout the state, especially in rural areas. This has an impact on the mental health infrastructure’s capability to meet the needs of young patients. The recent data released by APHA shows that in Alaska, at least 80% of young people with mental illness have unmet needs. This is particularly concerning, given that there is a need for early intervention in mental health care in the state. The data indicates that 50% of all lifetime mental health illnesses in Alaska begin by age 14.
The challenges extend beyond these concerning mental health statistics. According to new data gathered by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in partnership with state nonprofits, including the Alaska Children’s Trust, Alaska ranked 41st among the states for overall child-wellbeing. The foundation’s Kids Count report showed that Alaska’s children struggled both in health and education. The report raised concerns regarding reading and math proficiency, with a rise in the percentage of 8th-grade students not proficient in math, and 4th-grade students not proficient in reading between 2009 and 2019.
Moreover, the report indicated that only about one-third of children who entered kindergarten between 2021 and 2022 were considered ready for school, highlighting the need for early childhood education and support programs. Schools in the state also face a significant bullying problem. This was reported by the 2019 Alaska Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
According to the data, 25.5% of traditional high school students reported being bullied on school property, and 19.4% experienced electronic bullying. These distressing figures contribute to a hostile and unsafe environment for students, as evidenced by 12.3% of high school students who reported skipping school due to feeling unsafe.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the future of the state is its young people. Therefore, immediate action must be taken to prioritize mental health support, early intervention programs, and safe learning environments to protect and nurture the well-being of Alaska’s youth and ensure that our state is a home that provides a steady ground for their growth and their safety.