UAA student suicide a reminder of Alaska’s problem — (The Northern Light)

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The Northern Light

The suicide of a UAA student on Oct. 11 was a painful reminder that Alaska’s suicide rate is among the highest in the nation, ranking at twice the national average.

But experts say people facing depression or suicidal thoughts should remember that most people who have these symptoms get better.

“It’s not a death sentence if you have depression or you’ve had something tragic in your life,” said Anchorage Police Department Chaplain Bert McQueen. “It’s not a death sentence just because you’ve considered (suicide). There’s help, and hundreds who have been helped and didn’t commit suicide.”

People experiencing depression may have difficulty sleeping, agitated or slowed movements, increased or decreased appetite, negative thoughts and difficulty concentrating.

“The most worrisome symptom is planning,” said Suzanne Strisik, a professor of clinical psychology.

But it’s how people respond to having suicidal ideation that determines a person’s fate.

“Suicidal ideation can be a signal that some part of your life isn’t working for you and an invitation to have a new kind of life,” Strisik said.

John Ehmann received just such an invitation when he was a Washington State University college student, involved in Greek life and driven toward academic achievement.

He almost didn’t answer it.

“My parents had cut me off, and I was alone,” he said. “I had my fraternity brothers and a couple close friends, but I felt very isolated after that. I didn’t know where to go or who to turn to.”

Ehmann said his parents backed out from a previous commitment to pay his college costs. He suddenly owed the university $3,000 for books and tuition. He owed to his fraternity as well. He was far from his home in Alaska. He took Zoloft for depression, but his depression only worsened.

Finally, he took 90 of the 100-mg pills at once.

“When I woke in the hospital the next morning,” Ehmann said, “I realized that’s not what I wanted to do.”

The slurred speech and impaired motor skills Ehmann suffered from the incident took time to recover from, and he still has difficulty typing or writing for long periods.

At first, Ehmann was afraid his peers would judge him negatively.

“I lived on Greek Row in my fraternity house,” he said. “I was really active in the Greek system down there. So everybody knew what happened. Even though nobody judged me and everyone was really supportive afterward, at first it was really uncomfortable to go to class. But people were actually very helpful.”

Ehmann attends UAA and plans to finish his associate in arts in the spring before moving out of state to complete his bachelor’s degree. He said he would never attempt suicide again and would never wish that experience on anyone, but that he’s gained strength and wisdom from the experience that will carry him through life.

He’s replaced unrealistically high expectations with moderation and persistence as a strategy for success, and he realizes the importance of connecting to others. And he’s more compassionate toward others dealing with depression and issues surrounding suicide.

“If you feel it’s your only option, it’s not,” Ehmann said. “Seek help. Talk to somebody. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, cut something out. The biggest thing is, you gotta realize you’re not alone. Now matter how isolated you think you are, you’re not.”

Strisik heads the Psychological Services Center on campus, where people can go for counseling with a supervised graduate student in the clinical psychology program.

“Therapy is a way of saying, ‘I take control of my life,'” Strisik said. “‘I’m responsible for my life, and I’m going to talk to somebody who has expertise in the area of making my life the best it can be.'”

Strisik said people experiencing depression should talk to a trusted person with a positive attitude, because depression can bring on negative thinking that makes the problem worse.

“If you think, ‘Nobody gets me, nobody likes me,’ that’s depressive thinking,” she said. “That’s very seductive, and you’re tempted to believe it.”

Jon “J.D.” Alley, a junior in telecommunications and film, has seen the emotional aftermath of suicide many times in his job as funeral director apprentice at Evergreen Memorial Chapels.

“Everybody thinks, ‘What if?'” Alley said. “With all sudden death, there’s a feeling of hopelessness and loss of control. But with suicide, that’s something people feel they have control over. They think if they were there when it happened, they could have pulled the gun away or talked to them. They see themselves as letting their loved one down. It’s hard to understand you can’t be there every second, and there’s nothing you could have done.”

McQueen said professional help should be sought for anyone who is considering suicide.

“Many times people get over their head and think they’re doing a great job keeping someone alive,” he said. “But in suicide, if you’re not a professional, you need to get a professional, go to counselors. That’s when you’re in over your head, and I always say, go to the next level when you find yourself in over your head.”

Suicide rate higher in Alaska, but most get help