Alaska health care professionals work to address residents’ behavioral health needs


Shane Ersland


Alaska health care professionals are working on several initiatives to help residents with behavioral health needs. 


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Comagine Health and the Alaska Department of Health & Social Services (DHSS) hosted a teleconference Thursday to discuss Alaskans’ behavioral health needs. Comagine Regional Director of Behavioral Health Dr. Sarah McCutcheon hosted the panel discussion. She noted the state has limited resources for behavioral health services, and asked panel members if they had ideas on how to increase resources.

“When I think about resources that can be better leveraged, I think of expanding the role of peer support specialists,” Elizabeth King, Director of Behavioral Health & Workforce at the Alaska Hospital and Healthcare Association, said. “There’s been great development in certification that allows them to fulfill their roles. I’m looking at what we currently have and making sure we’re using it to the best of our abilities.”

Panelists were asked about individuals that die by suicide without having a behavioral health diagnosis. The majority of people who die by suicide have never seen a mental health professional or been diagnosed with a mental illness. Leah Van Kirk, Statewide Suicide Prevention Coordinator for Alaska’s Division of Behavioral Health, said universal screening is an important tool to use in reaching those people.

“Universal screening is a key component to identifying suicide risk,” Van Kirk said. “It gives us an opportunity to intervene when there might not be a behavioral health diagnosis. Treating suicidality directly, it’s important to understand what the drivers are.”

Van Kirk has been working to help the state implement plans for the national 988 suicide prevention lifeline, which will go live on July 16th. The line could be critical in the state, as Van Kirk said the suicide mortality rate per 100,000 Alaskans was 28.1 in 2020, compared to the average rate of 13.5 in the US. The line will provide free and confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or mental health-related distress 24/7. The line will be available for text services.

“We know this is effective,” Van Kirk said. “We expect significant increases in texting. Our youths prefer to use text.”

Another resource that promises to help with Alaska’s behavioral health needs is Crisis Now. Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority Senior Program Officer Eric Boyer has been involved with the development of the crisis response service.

Boyer said Crisis Now will bring a new framework to crisis response in the state. It will feature 3 components that will work together to prevent suicide, reduce the inappropriate use of emergency rooms and correctional settings, and provide support for residents in crisis. Its components include:

  • A regional or statewide crisis call center that coordinates with the model’s other 2 components in real time
  • Centrally deployed mobile crisis teams that respond in-person to people in crisis 24/7
  • Short-term and 23-hour stabilization services that offer safe and supportive behavioral health placement for those who cannot be stabilized by call center clinicians or the mobile crisis team

Boyer said the system will help reduce the state’s reliance on law enforcement and EMS services, which can sometimes result in negative outcomes for people experiencing crises.

“The key is to meet people where they’re at, without them going to an ER or law enforcement,” Boyer said. “The majority of people in crisis, their acuity can be resolved by this framework, which saves on ER stress. We’re working with contractors and Providence Behavioral Health to develop a short-term stabilization center in Anchorage. Crisis Now seeks to reduce the number of people entering the most restrictive levels of care.”

Not all of Crisis Now’s elements can be implemented statewide, but some elements have already been implemented in Anchorage, the Mat-Su region, Juneau, and Fairbanks. Its 24/7 crisis call line will be available to residents in many communities, regardless of size. The next steps in its implementation include identifying capital costs, working with DHSS to develop statewide system coordination, and a mobile team launch, Boyer said.