Leaders in the Alaska behavioral health community discuss ongoing concerns about youth mental health


Maddie McCarthy


Members of Alaska’s behavioral health community are concerned about the state of youth mental health in the state—a topic that leaders in the field discussed at the 2023 Alaska State of Reform Health Policy Conference last month.

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Elizabeth King, senior director of behavioral health with the Alaska Hospital and Healthcare Association, said she recently went to an Alaska Department of Education conference, where she learned that of the 158,000 students in Alaska, 10,000 have major depression. King said 6,000 of the students with major depression will not receive any treatment for it.

“If 60% of the kids with any physical disorder did not receive treatment for it, especially if it was life threatening as major depression can be, we wouldn’t stand for it.”

                       — King

The panelists also discussed access to mental healthcare. Jennifer Carson is the executive director of behavioral health services at the Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau, a city with approximately 32,000 residents .She spoke about the difficulties the residents of the city face when accessing mental health services.

“In Juneau we have little treatment options. The options that we do have, there are long wait lists,” Carson said. “We are fortunate enough that, come the end of the year, we will have a psychiatrist coming on board with us who is board certified. She’s the only one that we will have on staff with us at Bartlett.”

Dustin Larna, who works with the organization Residential Youth Care in Ketchikan, said people who don’t pursue mental healthcare do so because the system is difficult to navigate. 

“It’s not that they wouldn’t welcome some support and help,” Larna said. “It just might not be from the system of care as it’s set up now.”

King said the best way to create a functional healthcare system is to start with a good foundation. That foundation, she said, must come from workers, and they need to have a workforce that wants to go to the job. 

The panelists also identified administrative burden as one of the reasons for the state’s lacking behavioral health workforce. In the behavioral health industry, that burden is placed more heavily upon those providing the care than it is in the other health fields. 

Examples of the administrative burden they face include duplicated data collection for federal, state, and local regulations, and a lengthy admissions process due to data collection. All of this results in less time with patients, and more time doing paperwork.

The panelists also discussed the stigma surrounding mental health. Larna said past stigma has led to some of the regulations that now bar people from easily accessing help, and those regulations strengthen the burden of administration even further. 

“A lot of regulation and rules and expectations around behavioral health is really rooted in stigma,” Larna said. 

“Administrative burden for behavioral health is a very real challenge that absolutely takes away from people providing care. We spend a tremendous amount of time providing documentation to prove what we’re doing is worthwhile.”

                       — Larna

Carson also emphasized the importance of communication between providers in all areas of healthcare.

“We have all these segmented divisions. We need to break them down; we need to start talking and we need to start communicating and collaborating.”

                        — Carson 

King agreed with Carson and said that people in healthcare need to “come together, break down those siloes, and figure out how we’re going to look at behavioral health in a way that’s not through a lens of stigma.”