Q&A: Joshua Arvidson on youth mental health in Alaska


Ethan Kispert


Joshua Arvidson serves as the chief clinical officer of children’s services at the Alaska Child Trauma Center within Alaska Behavioral Health. He’s also on the Editorial Review Board for the Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma. 

In this Q&A, Arvidson briefed State of Reform on the various aspects of life during a pandemic that’s impacting the mental health of Alaska’s youth. 


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Ethan Kispert: What’s the status of youth mental health in Alaska? 

Joshua Arvidson: “So there’s a couple pieces to that. The pandemic has had some pretty significant effects on children and youth. The biggest impact that we’ve seen, from a mental health perspective, has been with schools. Schools are a really critical place where children get a lot of their needs met. There’s social and emotional needs, in addition to their educational needs, and sometimes even concrete things like food. We’ve seen a lot of children and youth really [struggle] over the past year and a half, particularly when schools were not in person. We saw a general uptick in the mental health needs of Alaskan kids throughout the pandemic.

We’re a child trauma site within the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. We’re connected to trauma centers all across the country, and there’s never been anything quite like COVID. Our network has done a lot of work with children and youth following large scale disasters. We anticipated a general uptick in needs and general increases in the most common mental health concerns among children and youth, which are anxiety, depression, and traumatic stress.”

EK: Are there any connections to higher drug usage amongst Alaska’s youth during this pandemic? 

JA: “What I would say about opioid use, or the impact of the opioid epidemic on youth, might be actually a little bit different than what you would hear from providers who work primarily with adults. Adult substance usage has a big impact on their kids. Whenever you have high rates of use in your adult population, it has a huge impact on kids. One of the big impacts is that it increases distress challenges for kids. There is research that links the use of opioids by adults in a home to increased risk for youth use in the same home. There’s also some research linking the use of opioids in late adolescence and early adulthood to increased risk for opioid dependence in adulthood.”

EK: Are there other factors that have contributed to where mental health is for youth right now? 

JA: “The loss of predictability and routine throughout the pandemic has been really hard for kids in school, but that’s just one part of the situation. But there’s a lot of other pieces to that as well. Are we going to be able to visit our relatives? Can we go to our grandma’s house who will be taking care of us next week? Is our family going to be able to take us on vacation? Are my parents going to be able to work? Kids orient themselves around teams and structure, and the pandemic was super disruptive to both of those. 

The second thing I would say is that kids really filter their experience to their caregivers. All the stress that adults are going through throughout the pandemic directly impacts kids because when adults are distressed, kids feed into those emotions. Families that might be struggling really need to count on neighbors, relatives, and friends for support, especially when it comes to caregiving for children.”

EK: Do you feel enough has been done, whether at the legislative level or within local health departments, to address mental health in the state of Alaska? Could more be done to address this problem? 

JA: “I have seen a lot of efforts made by people at multiple levels, families, schools, behavioral health providers, the state, and the feds even, through SAMHSA and other initiatives to try to really be aware of the mental health needs over this last couple years. What will often happen after something that’s really broad like [COVID-19], is that the need will outpace the risk, which will also outlast the response. The response right now is pretty awesome. We have to keep this up. The impact on kids’ mental health isn’t going to go away in two months or three months. That’s what I’ve seen.”

This interview was edited for clarity and length.