The Woosh.ji.een Dance Group performs amongst 220 candles in paper bags on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol on Tuesday evening during a vigil to recognize residents who have died by suicide. The candles represent each of the 220 suicides in 2021, with the blue bags representing people who served in the military. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The Woosh.ji.een Dance Group performs amongst 220 candles in paper bags on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol on Tuesday evening during a vigil to recognize residents who have died by suicide. The candles represent each of the 220 suicides in 2021, with the blue bags representing people who served in the military. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

A candle for each life no longer lit

Annual vigil at Capitol recognizes rising number of deaths by suicide in Alaska.

This article contains reference to suicide. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available to call or text 24/7.

Two-hundred twenty candles nestled in protective paper bags adorned the Alaska State Capitol steps Tuesday evening — each representing a 2021 death by suicide in the state, according to the Alaska Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

That statewide suicide prevention organization held the “candlelight” vigil during the sunny and breezy evening as part of its annual visit to Juneau to meet with lawmakers and other public officials at the Capitol. The vigil included an opening performance and blessing from the Woosh.ji.een Dance Group among the candles grouped in rows, with those in blue-color bags instead of white recognizing military service of people who died by suicide.

Alaska has long been among the national leaders in the rate at which people die by suicide, with the second-highest rate among states in 2020, according to Centers for Disease Control data. There were 204 suicides in Alaska that year, compared to the 220 suicides in 2021.

James Biela, a Bethel resident and AFSP Advocacy Ambassador who’s participated in the vigils for the past six years, said while lawmakers may be aware of Alaska’s high suicide rate as a policy matter, he and other advocates will spend the next two days focusing on the personal tragedies for the victims and their loved ones.

“They don’t know the stories of those who died by suicides,” he said. “We come here to tell those stories.”

A bill Biela said he is focusing on this year is Senate Bill 24, sponsored by state Sen. Elvi Gray-Jackson, an Anchorage Democrat, which, according to her sponsor statement, boosts the K-12 education curriculum to include “vital information pertaining to mental health symptoms, resources, and treatment.”

“We’ve been pushing that for five years,” Biela said. “We came close last year.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

A small crowd gathers outside the Alaska State Capitol on Tuesday evening for an annual vigil recognizing residents who have died from suicide. Alaska has one of the highest rates of suicide in the United States. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Unlit candles inside paper bags are placed in groups on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol, each representing a resident who committed suicide in 2021. The bags for the 220 candles were color-coded, with blue bags representing military service members who died. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Unlit candles inside paper bags are placed in groups on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol, each representing a resident who committed suicide in 2021. The bags for the 220 candles were color-coded, with blue bags representing military service members who died. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The Woosh.ji.een Dance Group performs on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol on Tuesday evening. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The Woosh.ji.een Dance Group performs on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol on Tuesday evening. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The Woosh.ji.een Dance Group performs on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol on Tuesday evening. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The Woosh.ji.een Dance Group performs on the steps of the Alaska State Capitol on Tuesday evening. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

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