Alaska Health Professionals Strive to Meet Residents’ Behavioral Health Needs – State of Reform

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

Get the latest information on state-specific policies for the healthcare industry delivered to your inbox.


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

“When I think of resources that can be better leveraged, I think of expanding the role of peer support specialists,” said Elizabeth King, director of behavioral health and workforce at Alaska Hospital. and Healthcare Association. “There has been a great development in certification which allows them to fulfill their role. I look at what we currently have and make sure we are using it to the best of our abilities.

Panelists were asked about people who die by suicide without having a behavioral health diagnosis. The Most 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 the Alaska Division of Behavioral Health, said universal screening is an important tool to use to reach these people.

“Universal screening is a key component in identifying suicide risk,” Van Kirk said. “It gives us the opportunity to intervene when there may not be a behavioral health diagnosis. When dealing directly with suicidality, it is important to understand what the drivers are.

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

“We know it’s effective,” Van Kirk said. “We expect a significant increase in texting. Our young people prefer to use text.

Another resource that promises to meet Alaska’s behavioral health needs is Crisis now. Eric Boyer, senior program officer for the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, helped develop the crisis intervention service.

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

  • A regional or national crisis call center that coordinates with the other 2 components of the model 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 providing safe and supportive behavioral health placement for those who cannot be stabilized by call center clinicians or mobile crisis team

Boyer said the system will help reduce state reliance on law enforcement and EMS services, which can sometimes lead to negative outcomes for people in crisis.

“The key is meeting people where they are, without them going to the ER or law enforcement,” Boyer said. “The majority of people in crisis, their acuity can be resolved by this framework, which saves on the stress of emergencies. We are 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 elements of Crisis Now can be implemented statewide, but some elements have already been implemented in Anchorage, the Mat-Su area, Juneau and Fairbanks. Its 24/7 emergency hotline will be available to residents of many communities, regardless of size. Next steps in its implementation include identifying capital costs, working with DHSS to develop statewide system coordination, and launching a mobile team, Boyer said.

Leave a Comment