Suicide: Number one killer of young adults in Alaska

By Chris Hoch
Sun Star Reporter
04/07/2015

The leading cause of death in Alaska for people between the ages of 15 and 24 is suicide according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. At UAF, there have been two suicides in the past year according to the UAF police department.

The student health center, UAF PD and many people at UAF trying to do their part to reduce the Members of a UAF improv club perform before the Gatekeeper Training. They were there to demonstrate how laughter can relieve stress. - Chris Hoch / Sun Starnumbers.

“Knowing about five suicides in the four years I’ve been here [Fairbanks] is heartbreaking. I wanted to do something about it,” Nicole Cowans, UAF student majoring in psychology and theater and president of Psi Chi, said. Cowans, as part of her thesis, arranged for Sarah McConnell, UA behavioral health training coordinator, to offer her suicide prevention training for free at UAF. “I found a topic that I was passionate about and one that affected me. Looking back in my college career as a graduating senior, that is an issue that has stuck out to me that I can address,” Cowans said.

In the spring months, March and April, seem to be a time period where, for whatever reason, people become more anxious, maybe more depressed,” BJ Aldrich, director of the UAF health and counseling center, said. The most effective mental health treatments, according to Aldrich, include exercise, counseling and medication.

University PD’s role in wellness

Alaska law dictates police can take people into custody if they believe the person is incapable of caring for his or herself if the person is a threat to others.

“Depending on the totality of their circumstances we may detain them in an involuntary commitment,” Goetz said. Involuntary commitments only occur if the police cannot get an individual to voluntarily commit and have determined that he or she may have suicidal intent.

“We try to get them to voluntarily go to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. We’ll transport them there,” Goetz said. Police can conduct a welfare check to ensure that a person is not dangerous and is capable of taking care of themselves at the request of Residence Life, the dean of students, the health and counseling center, or the general public.

Medication options at the student health center

The health and counseling center contains a formulary, a pharmacy that cannot fill outside prescriptions, with a variety of stocked medications pre-approved by UAF’s insurance company. The formulary is used to dispense medications as part of a visit and carries a variety of anti-depressant selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors.

“We carry some of the most common ones. Our antidepressants for a month are $10,” Aldrich said.

A patient at the health and counseling center may present issues that the staff are not equipped to handle.

“Occasionally we run into mental health issues,” Aldrich said. In the cases of schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, manic depression and multiple personalities disorder, the health and counseling center refers an individual to a psychiatrist, which can be a challenge considering the lack of psychiatrists in Fairbanks, Aldrich said.

Student health center budget break-down

Sale of medications and lab fees compose about 10 percent of the health and counseling center budget. Seventy percent of the budget comes from the health and counseling center fee, a $110 fee mandatory for students taking nine credits or more. Students who pay the fee receive unlimited medical visits and up to six free counseling sessions, each session costing $15 thereafter. Twenty percent of the budget comes from UAF general funds which, if cut, would require that the health and counseling center cut personnel or increase the student fee.

SAD lights available to students

Increasing daylight in April can lead to sleep disorders, which mirror the increase in cases of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) that the health and counseling center sees in November. According to Aldrich, good health requires exercise, getting decent sleep and good nutrition. Bad sleep habits are rampant among college students and require a reset of the circadian rhythm, which the health and counseling center can help with. SAD lights are available for rent from the health and counseling center, which help to treat the symptoms of SAD.

Diet options

“I tell people go talk to the people at dining services, see what they can do to help you because they will really bend over backwards to help you,” Aldrich said. “I wish we had a dietician.” The health and counseling center brings up a nutritionist once a semester to help students with their nutritional needs, who will be coming to UAF for one day in mid-April. Dining Services did not comment regarding the potential to fill student requests.

Other services offered to students

Throughout the year, the health and counseling center deals with urgent care, STD screening, birth control and chronic care. A lot of the mental issues that students face are handled by the medical side of the health and counseling center, according to Aldrich. Counselors help students with a variety of issues ranging from trouble with a roommate or homesickness up to suicidal intent. They also offer couples counseling, offer outreach programs, have group sessions and aid Residence Life with alcohol training sanctions.

“We have a great set of counselors who have a lot of experience,” Aldrich said.

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