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 firstname.lastname@example.org