As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, it’s not surprising that many Alaskans are feeling less than OK, said Vanessa Meade, a social worker and professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“We’ve never experienced this before, right?” said Meade. “When there is something unknown, we have a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear, and our brains don’t do that well with that.”
Nationally, anxiety and depressive disorders have increased “considerably” since the pandemic began, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a recent study. The numbers were higher for certain groups, including racial and ethnic minorities, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers, who all experienced “worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicide ideation,” according to the study.
In Alaska, early self-reported data suggests a similar situation: Over half the respondents in a survey the state conducted in May reported that their mental health had gotten worse during the pandemic. That percentage was higher for Alaskans who had lost their job due to the pandemic. About one-third reported using alcohol or drugs to cope.
“It makes sense that we’re more anxious, because we don’t know how this is going to turn out,” said Meade. “We’re worried about getting sick, we’re worried about our family members getting sick, and I think there’s an added thing with Alaska, too, and that’s the isolation.”
But preliminary data from the first half of 2020 suggests that Alaska has not seen a spike in overdose deaths, emergency room visits or suicides compared to previous years.
“We actually saw more opioid overdose deaths during January to June of 2019 than we did in the same period this year,” said Jessica Filley, an epidemiologist with the state who tracks substance abuse and addiction.
State data shows that while there was a brief decrease of mental health visits early on in the pandemic, those numbers have “since returned to normal,” she said.
She said it’s too soon to tell whether these trends will continue, and what conclusions can be drawn from them.
“We are a unique state and we don’t necessarily align with the national numbers,” she said.
Philip Licht is executive director of Set Free Alaska, a substance abuse treatment center in Palmer. He said that since March, he has seen “certainly an increased level of anxiety, stress and isolation, which together are putting people at a higher risk of relapse and substance abuse.”
Licht said he and his clients have found some ways to cope.
“We had a pretty robust telehealth system set up from the beginning,” he said, explaining that online behavioral services generally have been helpful for the clients he serves.
Online group therapy in particular has been very helpful, he said, because it allows people to have relationships with each other as well as their case managers.
Still, Licht said he has seen an overall uptick in mental health issues among both his adult clients and children.
“We serve children who have experienced trauma, and while these kids are not substance abusers, we’re trying to prevent them from becoming substance abusers,” he said. “And because of COVID, and because of all the changes and unknowns, we are seeing an increase in issues with the children, too, in terms of their levels of stress and anxiety.”
Licht said he is encouraging his clients and anyone dealing with mental health challenges to draw a distinction between physical and social distancing, which are not the same thing, he said.
“It’s important to find creative ways to to maintain good, healthy, strong, sober relationships in a time where things are out of control, and we’re being pushed a little bit more towards isolation,” he said.
Another group dealing with isolation is elderly Alaskans, who must take extra precautions to avoid contracting the virus because they are at an increased likelihood of being hospitalized or dying if they become infected.
At the Juneau Pioneer Home, one of six state-run elder care facilities in Alaska, many residents were used to near-daily visits from family members before COVID-19 arrived in the state, said Gina DelRosario, an administrator there.
In March, the home closed to the public as a precaution to prevent the spread of the virus.
Fridays used to be open to friends and family for a weekly ice cream social. A volunteer used to come weekly to play the piano. Tea time used to be a popular time to host visitors, too, she said.
But now, many of the residents are still adjusting to quieter days, DelRosario said. Talk of cabin fever is common.
“It isn’t easy for the elders,” she said.
There’s varying levels of memory impairment among residents, she said.
“So there’s just that constant question of, ’Why can’t my family members come here and visit?’” she said.
Now, staff members hand out iPads for residents to talk with their families using FaceTime. Friends and relatives can also visit on the other side of a window or at one of the home’s glass walls, DelRosario said.
“We do our best to still offer activities for them so they have something to look forward to every day,” she said. “Bingo is a real popular activity. We have fitness classes, music time, card games, yoga and bread-baking.”
The residents love getting mail, she added: “I see their faces light up when a letter or postcard arrives for them.”
Meade, the social worker, said ultimately the most important thing Alaskans can do is find ways to stay connected to each other, and to create community even when it’s challenging.
“We’re coming into a really dark season,” she said. “But we still have to get out, even when it’s cold, as much as possible. Even if it’s just a walk or something simple.”
She said another thing people can do is to have a lot of self-compassion, recognizing that “this is a really hard time.”
“It’s okay to be having a hard time. But it’s also important to reach out if you having a difficult time to where it’s affecting your daily functioning,” she said. “You have good days and bad days. But if you get stuck in those bad days for many days in a row, that’s when you need to reach out and get some help, or talk to someone.”
If you or someone you know are dealing with a mental crisis or suicidal thoughts, you can call the Alaska Careline at 1-877-266-HELP or the National Suicide Prevention line at 1-800-273-8255. For more information on the Alaska Suicide Prevention Council and suicide in Alaska, visit dhss.alaska.gov/suicideprevention.