Patrick Dougherty: Time to take another long, hard look at Alaska’s struggle with alcohol

Twenty-five years ago, the Daily News sent a handful of reporters to rural Alaska to investigate the surprisingly high death rates of young Alaska Natives. As they talked to people — from village residents to health officials to law enforcement agents — they quickly saw the outline of what was in fact a statewide epidemic of suicide, violence and accidental death.

Everywhere the reporters went, people wanted to talk about one thing above all others: the effects of alcohol misuse in promoting and perpetuating that epidemic. The series of stories that followed was called “A People in Peril.” It eventually won a Pulitzer Prize, but it was important because it focused the attention of Alaskans on a devastating tragedy happening every day, from one end of the state to the other.

Until then, for most of our readers, it had been the invisible catastrophe. Those stories jump-started a discussion about alcohol and Alaska Native health. That conversation has been led by the Native community, which has, along with the state, initiated treatment programs and other social services for those most at risk of death or injury. But even after 25 years, that battle is far from won.

Over the ensuing years, the Daily News has told the larger story of alcohol’s toll on all Alaskans – not just Alaska Natives — in countless tiny, everyday tragedies. Thoughtful readers have watched it play out in the daily drumbeat of mayhem and fatal mishap in the police briefs – short stories well behind the newspaper’s front page, with only occasional tragedies large enough to reach the top of the news. But make no mistake, alcohol is a thread that runs through the stories of Alaskans dead in mangled cars, abused in dysfunctional families, assaulted by friends and relatives, struck down by hit-and-run drivers, serving prison sentences for barely remembered crimes and living on the street. You may wonder, as I do, who is that guy just arrested for his ninth DUI, or his third DUI in 12 months, and is our justice system actually capable of protecting us from them? Could we offer more cost-effective treatment programs, rather than expensive and often ineffective incarceration? The list of such questions is long.When asked in a statewide survey last year to name the state’s top health issue, Alaskans ranked the use and misuse of alcohol as No. 1. Alaska’s rates of various types of social dysfunction are some of the highest in the country, and that is in part because of alcohol.

With all that in mind, we’ve decided it’s time to try to assemble those tiny pieces into a larger mosaic. We are assigning a reporter and photographer to spend the next year examining and documenting the consequences and social costs of alcohol misuse, as well the options for treatment and recovery. In an era of shrinking journalistic resources, such a project wouldn’t be possible without the financial support of the Alaska Community Foundation, Alaska Children’s Trust, Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Providence Health & Services Alaska, Mat-Su Health Foundation and Rasmuson Foundation. These and other groups have provided $154,000 to underwrite the cost of our journalists, support staff, and travel across Alaska for a year; all other costs will be borne by the paper. This collaboration grew out of a simple discussion of the newspaper’s interest in looking more deeply at alcohol and the Rasmuson Foundation’s desire to spur a statewide discussion of alcohol, its costs and better ways to address the problems it causes.

The newspaper will be solely responsible for the selection and execution of stories –everything from spot news to investigative journalism. Look also for a variety of voices from the community debating this topic on these pages. If you have something to say, we hope you will join the conversation. Right now, we have many more questions than answers, so we’ve started talking with people who know more about the subject than we do. They will help us identify the stories that need to be told. If you have your own questions about alcohol in Alaska or suggestions for us, please take a moment to send them directly to me at the email address above. We hope you will find this work useful. Thanks for reading.