As the pandemic wears on, the kids are not OK — and the support they need is hard to find in Alaska

Around the state, young Alaskans and the adults in their lives described barriers to getting help for their mental health.

sunset, anchorage, spring

Alaska’s teens are struggling — and the help they need isn’t always easy to find.

The problems are wide-ranging. They include limited options for Alaskans seeking treatment for eating disorders, fewer beds for psychiatric care and long waitlists for counselors and therapists, especially for those specializing in the treatment of young people.

Many of these challenges existed long before the pandemic: Data from 2019, the last year the state’s annual Youth Behavior Risk Survey was conducted, showed that out of 1,875 respondents in 39 schools, about a quarter had seriously considered suicide and 19% had attempted suicide.

Now, the emotional strain of a pandemic that’s led to more isolation and remote learning is adding a new layer of pressure on Alaska’s youths.

The Daily News invited readers to share the experiences of Alaska teens and youths facing mental health struggles, and what it was like seeking help.

We heard from young Alaskans and their loved ones who described challenges around talking about their mental health, accessing therapists, dealing with life during a pandemic, and working through major life hurdles before and after COVID-19.

Here are just a few of their stories.

“I feel like it needs to be less ignored. It should be a big thing — like your mental well-being and your physical well-being should both be something that is talked about a lot. It shouldn’t be whispered about.”

— Kursten Wilde, 17, Galena
Kursten Wilde

The therapist Kursten Wilde saw to help manage her depression was a plane ride away.

Now a high school senior, Wilde lived in Russian Mission, a small Yukon River village home to a few hundred people, for most of her childhood. She says difficult family dynamics and substance abuse issues at home created mental health struggles through her childhood.

Mental health felt like a taboo subject to talk about in Russian Mission, especially in such a small community where everyone knew each other. And even when Wilde did ask for help, there weren’t any local mental health providers she could see.

The first time she got professional treatment a few years ago, Wilde and her mother had to fly to Bethel.

Then her mother stayed in the room for the entire session.

“So I couldn’t really express how I felt,” Wilde said.

She never returned.

Wilde now attends Galena Interior Learning Academy in Galena, a slightly larger village in the Interior. The high school is for locals but also boards students from around the state including teens from even smaller communities.

Life in Galena comes with counselors in the dorms, which is really helpful, Wilde said.

“Back at home, it would be nice to have people you’re related to — because you’re related to basically everyone there — to acknowledge the fact that mental illness is an issue, and that it needs to be talked about,” she said.

Kursten Wilde

Wilde is hopeful about the future. She was accepted to a Colorado college and hopes to become a high school math teacher.

But the last few years haven’t always been easy — especially once COVID-19 hit.

Returning to school after the first pandemic year of mostly virtual learning was challenging and life in the community remains fairly isolated to protect elders and others at risk from the virus.

Wilde recently lost a friend to suicide and doesn’t want anyone else she knows to become a statistic. She hopes by talking publicly about her mental health, her peers might feel more able to seek help.

“I feel like it needs to be less ignored,” she said. “It should be a big thing — like your mental well-being and your physical well-being should both be something that is talked about a lot. It shouldn’t be whispered about.”

“Now that we’re trying to go back to normal, now we’re starting to see students maybe fall through the cracks and not get the attention and support that they need.”

— Ashley Kramer, teacher, Galena
Ashley Kramer

Mental health has been a serious concern to the local school district every year, but especially this year, said Ashley Kramer, one of Wilde’s teachers in Galena who’s originally from Minnesota.

A combination of pandemic fatigue and limited social connections over the past two years seem to have worsened existing mental health challenges for the students, Kramer said.

She thinks that while the mental health impacts for her students are somewhat unique because many students are so far from home, “I think some of the trends we’re seeing here are happening everywhere —where students maybe don’t necessarily have the coping mechanisms in the classroom that they once did,” she said.

“So they go into this, like, fight-or-flight mode where the school doesn’t really matter. And that is a direct result, I think, from a lot of taxing mental health over the last 2 1/2 years or so.”

Kramer said this year feels worse than the earliest part of the pandemic.

“I just wonder if it kind of felt like we were all in this together before, like it was like a mutual misery,” she said. “But now that we’re trying to go back to normal, now we’re starting to see students maybe fall through the cracks and not get the attention and support that they need.”

[Youth mental health providers say the pandemic shed light on an existing problem, but more support is needed in Alaska]

The community is smaller, too. Last school year, Galena Interior Learning Academy was only permitted to bring in 50 boarding school students due to community concern about COVID-19. This year, there are 150 students, which is far fewer than the approximately 230 students who attended pre-pandemic, Kramer said.

Over the last two years, Kramer said she’s seen less student engagement with school — enrollment in extracurricular activities like sports and clubs is way down — at a time when many of the “fun” parts of school have been lost.

And while pandemic measures have relaxed since those early months, the school used to feel more integrated with the broader Galena community — and the long absences of activities and events that helped students feel a sense of belonging and connections have had an impact.

“All those other things, like pep rallies and assemblies, had been canceled. School dances had been put on the back burner. And so we started seeing that sense of community that was kind of lost,” she said.

“Mental health is health. So taking the safety of others into account, you also need to take mental health and make it a priority as well.”

— Sycely Wheeles, 16, Anchorage
Sycely Wheeles

Sycely Wheeles, 16, was crowned Miss Alaska’s Outstanding Teen in the same pageant Emma Broyles was named Miss Alaska.

She spent the last week of her spring break in Juneau speaking to lawmakers about two pieces of legislation — Senate Bill 80 and House Bill 60 — that would provide mental health education templates for schools.

Wheeles says she wishes her mental health education had been more complete earlier in her schooling and thinks that would have enabled her to get help sooner.

Wheeles was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety a year before the pandemic began when she was in eighth grade, and first started seeing the therapist she still sees to this day.

“It was really great to be able to just put a name to that feeling I’d been having,” she said.

She was a freshman when COVID-19 arrived in Alaska. For months, her only social interaction was with her immediate family. They’d drive to scenic spots in town to eat takeout, and she’d stay up late talking to her friends on FaceTime with her cat, Ollie, curled up by her side.

“I spent a lot of time in my room,” she said. “I wasn’t eating very regularly, my sleeping was super off. I’d be like, I don’t have anything to be up for in the morning, I might as well sleep until noon.”

Sycely Wheeles

Her life as a high schooler has slowly returned to a version of normal, but Wheeles said that road has been rocky, and that she’s still coming to terms with everything she missed.

In November 2021, Wheeles was on a committee that was planning a winter dance that never happened.

“A week before the administration decided to cancel it because staff were concerned. And it was a very sad day. My mom had to come and bring the whole class doughnuts,” she said.

Wheeles said she understands the importance of COVID-19 precautions and keeping each other safe and healthy. But she thinks the importance of mental health may have gotten lost along the way.

“Mental health is health. So taking the safety of others into account, you also need to take mental health and make it a priority, as well,” she said.

“We’ve hit a flashpoint with most kids where, if we aren’t talking about and addressing some of the issues of anxiety and the uncertainty that’s underlying that, it’s a lot harder for us to move on.”

— Micah Hoffman, school psychologist, Wasilla
Micah Hoffman, mat-su, mat-su school, msbsd, psychologist, school psychologist

In the Mat-Su, Micah Hoffman, a school psychologist who divides his time between Mat-Su Day School, the Juvenile Justice Center and Burchell High School in Wasilla, thinks kids have absorbed the anxiety of the adults around them — and that there are not enough mental health providers in the area to treat every kid who needs help.

“I think that some of the conditions around the pandemic and even the political climate have intensified everyone’s anxiety,” he said. Kids “are really absorbing and then sometimes amplifying whatever stressors their parents are experiencing. ... They’re quite vulnerable to that.”

Hoffman said he’s observed an increase in intensity of whatever underlying challenges were already present.

“So for kids with anger, who maybe are quick to anger and have some frustration, well, now we’re starting to see physical aggression,” he explained. “For kids with depression, we might see that become self-harm or just attendance issues that we didn’t see before.”

Hoffman described what he sees as a “flashpoint with most kids, where if we aren’t talking about and addressing some of the issues of anxiety and and uncertainty underlying that it’s a lot harder for us to move on.”

School psychologists can help address underlying issues, “but we’re not offering a therapeutic support. We’re offering things like counseling, or we’re teaching coping skills, we’re teaching problem solving,” Hoffman explained.

However, some students need additional help — and for many families trying to get help from a family therapist or a child psychologists, help is hard to get.

He thinks one solution could be to focus on more group-oriented therapy or support in the absence of enough individual counselors to treat everyone.

“What I’m hearing from families is that there’s just an insurmountable waitlist, that it’s quite a hopeless situation where they’re being not turned away, but just — the waitlists are so long that they’re discouraged from even going on the waitlist,” Hoffman said.

“I think what really exacerbated my situation was that I kept everything in. If mental health and treating mental health had been more normalized, I think I might have been a little more apt to seek out help, or just talk about it.”

— Canyon Tobin, 22, Anchorage
Canyon Tobin, Nora Miller, climber, climbers, denali

One Anchorage teenager’s struggles with mental health began long before the pandemic. It started around the time he left for his first semester of college.

Canyon Tobin, now 22, had graduated Service High School as a valedictorian. He’d been accepted to Dartmouth College and had climbed Denali with his mom. He was, by all outward measures, thriving.

But that first semester was hard. At home, Tobin had a close circle of friends he’d known most of his life. At school, he was surrounded by thousands of strangers from all around the world.

“I think going to college, especially someplace that is so different than Alaska, was itself a challenge for me. I definitely felt out of place.”

He also was struggling to balance skiing, a sport his life had revolved around, with studying and socializing. He started getting sick all the time — bad colds, respiratory illnesses.

“I started feeling all this pressure, like, I’m not going to do well. I’m gonna let everyone down,” he said.

When he returned home for winter break, he wasn’t in a good place. One night, things got so bad Tobin’s mother ended up calling the police.

Nora Miller remembers that December 2018 night as one of the worst. The day before Christmas Eve, Miller asked her son if he was suicidal. Tobin told her he thought about it every day.

“Not words any parent wants to hear,” she said.

Miller ended up bringing Tobin to the emergency room at Providence Alaska Medical Center, and he was eventually admitted to the inpatient mental health unit for two weeks.

Tobin and Miller described the experience there as difficult and frightening. Miller was frustrated that because her son was 19, he was treated as an adult and there was very little doctors would tell her while her son was being hospitalized.

Tobin is now on antidepressants that are helping him cope with his depression. He has one semester left at school and says he’s ready to move on with his life after college.

“I think the biggest thing that has helped me, mental health-wise, and dealing with school, which I think the two are pretty interlinked, is I’m just trying to stop caring about what other people think,” he said.

He also feels more open talking about what he’s gone through, and has shifted the way he thinks about school and his place there.

“I think what really exacerbated my situation was that I kept everything in,” he said. “If mental health and treating mental health had been more normalized, I think I might have been a little more apt to seek out help, or just talk about it.”

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. You can also text NAMI to 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line anytime. For more information on the Alaska Suicide Prevention Council and suicide in Alaska, visit dhss.alaska.gov/suicideprevention and namialaska.org/crisis-resources.

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Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.