New suicide prevention group includes pair of locals

Alaska AFSP chapter is the 49th in the nation


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The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), a nonprofit seeking to reduce loss of life via suicide, is opening its 49th chapter in Alaska — the state’s first.

On Friday, Sept. 9, the official charter chapter paperwork will be signed during a fundraising event at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

With the highest per capita rate of suicide in the nation, Jo McNeal, AFSP Pacific Northwest area director, said Alaska was an obvious choice for a chapter.

“Suicide prevention is very, very important to many residents in Alaska,” McNeal said.

Alaska topped the list with 149 suicides (out of a population of 681,111) for a rate of 21.8 per 100,00 people in 2006, according to the AFSP website. The national average was 11.5 per 100,000 in 2006, according to the website.

The AFSP website states that suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the U.S., with approximately 90 Americans taking their own lives every day.

Citing a Statewide Suicide Prevention Council report, the Associated Press reported early this year that Alaska’s suicide rate is twice the national average.

McNeal said she began work on the chapter just over a year ago.

“We have formed this chapter very quickly with great results,” she said. “I’m very excited Alaska happened as quickly as it did. Things really fell into place for us.”

McNeal attributed the speedy creation of the new chapter to a host of eager volunteers. The chapter’s nine board members also deserve credit, she said.

“We’ve got some really go-getters,” McNeal said. “I’ve got some pretty amazing people.”

Two of those board members, Tony Bickert and Ann Applebee, are Chugiak-Eagle River residents. Both had immediate family members die of suicide, which drew them to AFSP.

“I want to help people who have been affected by suicide,” Bickert said. “People who need to talk to somebody, we can get them in touch with the right people.”

A friend introduced Bickert to AFSP after Bickert’s father died when Bickert was a teenager. Bickert said he wanted to return the help that he received from AFSP to others in need.

Applebee used AFSP as a resource after her brother died three years ago.

“At that time, I was working in Bethel and was really beginning to understand the complexity and depth of suicide and people who are affected by it,” Applebee wrote in an email.

Applebee said she continues to use AFSP for herself and as a resource for clients she serves at the Southcentral Foundation, where she works as a clinician on the Behavioral Urgent Response Team.

The new chapter is important for Alaska because of the state’s high suicide rate, Applebee wrote.

“The more information, research, advocacy and outreach we can bring to our communities, the better,” she wrote.

Bickert agreed.

“The more exposure and less stigma that this subject has, the more people that can be helped,” he said.

In addition to Bickert and Applebee, the board has members from Anchorage, Bethel, Healy, Wasilla and Homer, McNeal said.

“It’s a really great core group of people we’ve brought on,” she said.

AFSP raised more than $15,000 via an “Out of the Darkness” community walk, which was held in Alaska in May, McNeal said. About 100 people attended the event, she said.

Friday’s fundraiser will feature a silent auction. A stainless steel wine refrigerator, designer cake and an autographed print of Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver” are a few items up for bid. Dress for the event is business casual, McNeal said.

AFSP is seeking volunteers for three committees — events, program services and advocacy — McNeal said. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact McNeal at jmcneal@afsp.org.

Contact Mike Nesper at 830-6632 or mike.nesper@alaskastar.com

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