Rural Alaskan Communities Address High Teen Drug Abuse, Suicide Rates

By McCarton Ackerman 11/20/14

The scourge of drug abuse and suicide among teens has plagued even the furthest most reaches of The Last Frontier.

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Lead On in Anchorage. Photo via

Alaskans are well aware of the high rates of suicide and drug abuse among teenagers in rural communities throughout the state, but many of these remote areas are now establishing programs to help address this issue.

The American Journal of Public Health noted that suicide is the leading cause of death in Alaska among 15-24 year-olds and drug abuse likely plays a contributing role to this statistic. In the remote community of Dillingham, the local SAFE shelter addressed this issue by creating a program for teens called Myspace, which helps give kids a support base outside of school and home. In addition to providing a meal every day, kids take part in structured activities like tutoring and also have access to programs like Talk Now Talk Often, which helps kids and parents learn how to interact.

“If kids don’t have a place to go, they’ll end up in places that are really, really bad. They need to have shelter, they need to have a place to go because it’s cold outside,” said Myspace manager Gregg Marxmiller. "Kids were ending up in places where there’s drinking going on, where people were sexually assaulting each other, where they were beating on each other, where drugs were being used.  And so they said we don’t want that. Myspace is one of those solutions.”

Teenagers across the state have also tried to address this issue by joining statewide youth collaboration Lead On, which led to Dillingham High School senior Elijah Hunt creating a youth leadership group to help clean up the community and bring people together.

“My opinion is that the youth don’t connect with everybody as well, that brings a lot of problems for them…they get led into drugs and alcohol and I believe it’s because of a lack of communication,” said Hunt. "I want people to realize that we are able to change, we don’t have to just complain about everything. We can actually step up and do something.”

Access to drug treatment is another issue that often plagues rural communities. In January 2012, a remote First Nations reserve in Northern Ontario, Canada declared a state of emergency due to extremely high rates of prescription drug abuse and no options for treatment locally. Cat Lake—which has a population of 480 and is only accessible by aircraft—reports 150 registered prescription drug addicts and 120 suspected addicts who aren't registered.

“These people have no access to treatment whatsoever and the wait lists are 40 days to six months,” said community spokesman Russell Wesley. "After the state of emergency cry for help, two community wellness workers were made available to Cat Lake. Steve Outhouse, spokesperson for Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, said the government had earmarked $700,000 to fund community-based drug programs for First Nations communities.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.