Q&A: Jerry Jenkins, COO at the Alaska Behavioral Health Association

Jerry Jenkins has served as the Alaska Behavioral Health Association’s chief operating officer since 2018. In this Q&A, Jenkins reflects on the behavioral health challenges faced by Alaskans during the past year and shares lessons learned from the pandemic. 



Channon Pedersen: If you think back to the beginning of this pandemic and when you first started to hear the news about the severity of COVID-19, what was your initial reaction? What kept you up at night in those early days?

Jerry Jenkins: “One was recognizing the continuum of care and knowing that we had providers and partners in different places…We’ve got providers that are actually working in family homes with kids and families and trying to help stabilize the situation. So it’s like, how’s this going to happen? How are staff going to engage with a family? Can you use technology in a remote area that doesn’t have enough bandwidth to support Zoom calls or FaceTime on an iPhone? It’s that realization. Because we’re so accustomed to being able to walk in, but we can’t walk in because we’ve got to keep distance!

I’ve also got individuals that are out in the community doing engagement. How are we going to do engagement with the homeless population or with the folks on the streets?

From there, we’ve got community treatment teams — I call them in vivo providers. They’re out with the clients or the consumers, wherever they’re at. If they’re at work, if they’re at a club house, or a drop in center, or in their apartment, or wherever they live. Again, how are we going to do assertive community treatment?

Then you’ve got the folks in offices, whether it be a therapist, a case manager, or a peer that does peer support. How are they going to do that? So I was immediately thinking about what has to change, and when, and how.

Then you get into the residential levels of care. How are people going to get the treatment? And if they are in treatment, how are they going to get home? Then you got the acute care, which is the ER’s and the inpatient units. Again, the challenge: you’ve got talent issues, you can’t turn people away, how do you do safe admissions?

So, pre-pandemic, on the front edge of the tsunami was: ‘Wow. How do we do all of this?’”

CP: How were you able to work with people who struggle with heroin or other opioid addictions?

JJ: “There was definitely an uptick in the number of overdoses related to opioid use. I’ll start with some of my outpatient colleagues who within a week had pivoted to telehealth and had done it successfully. And there was an ‘aha’ moment that the clients like it better because they can stay at home and still access their therapist and their support network. I heard from the majority that they liked that convenience.

Other clients missed the socialization aspect — the actual physical socialization. So there were some real pluses and negatives with that.

With my methadone colleagues, it was really challenging. It took several weeks to help stabilize that. I’ll say that it caused people to look at other ways of doing that.”

CP: Methadone is, of course, an oral medication that’s also highly addictive. What about injection treatments? How do you do telehealth when you have to put a needle in somebody’s arm?

JJ: “We were making sure that the clinics that needed to do injections and/or the methadone treatments had the safety measures in place for people to continue receiving their medication.

But it also has been working in such a way that if this happens again, we can look at adapting new technologies. I’ll give an example: there’s a company called Dose Health out of Minneapolis that has instruments that you can put medication in. You can have it set for dispensing time, you know, when it’s dispensed. So that’s a tool that we’ve never considered for medication assisted treatment.”

CP: Let me clarify: did that allow patients to self administer without having to come in?

JJ: “It has the potential of doing that, yes. To go with it, there are checks and balances in place because it electronically records and notifies whoever’s monitoring that the person either attempted to access the medication, or they actually accessed it. So again, it was looking at alternatives.”

CP: That could be very useful in the future. It doesn’t have to be pandemic related.

JJ: “Correct. We would have never looked if it hadn’t been for the pandemic.”

CP: Great point. What else was there like that? Something that might change how we deliver our mental and behavioral health care?

JJ: “Well, I think telehealth. That genie is out of the box, as they say. I think consumers and providers will continue to use it going forward.”

CP: Since it’s right at the top of my head, knowing that depression doesn’t just go away and that it takes a while to recover, what other things do you think are going to take some extra time to recover from? And how do we solve some of those issues?

 JJ: “We didn’t know what to do. The pandemic produced significant anxiety within people. The positive side was the resilience that we saw, and how people adapted and have been able to make it. That does not mean there are not profound lasting impacts of trauma. I just think it’s recognizing that we need as much time to recover as it took us to get through the pandemic — as much as 18 months.”

CP: That can be something significant for people to understand. Because I think that the hope is that everything just goes back to normal right away, like nothing ever happened. And I’m hearing you say that’s not going to be the case. We’re on a slow road.

JJ: “Yeah.”

CP: Looking toward the future, what gives you hope?

JJ: “That we’ve made it through. That’s been demonstrated. We’re very adaptable. We’re better prepared for the next pandemic.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.