Earthquake anxiety overwhelms some Anchorage mental health clinics already stretched thin

Before the earthquake, Anne Kranawetter typically only felt anxious when she flew.

Now, anxiety is a regular part of her life. The earthquake itself left Kranawetter, an environmental scientist, “extremely upset,” but as as aftershocks continue to jolt Anchorage, Kranawetter said her condition has gotten so bad that it’s prevented her from driving or going in to work. She started taking anxiety medication she had been prescribed for flights every day, even though she wasn’t meant to take it regularly. Her primary care doctor recommended she see a psychiatrist to get a long-term prescription.

However, every clinic she tried to make an appointment with told her the same thing: She would have to be put on a waitlist. The earliest she could get in would be February or March. Some never even called her back, she said, and many blamed the earthquake.

Since the earthquake, mental health providers around the municipality have had trouble keeping up with appointments, which many say have spiked in the last few weeks.

"Resources in town are already pretty significantly stretched, and the earthquake has not helped,” said Davide James, executive director of Bridges Counseling Connection, which has offices in both Anchorage and Mat-Su.

James said his practice has seen an uptick in new clients calling to make appointments, on top of a 30 percent spike in current clients wanting to be seen more frequently. He said many are dealing with anxiety attacks triggered by continuing aftershocks, which have left them distracted, agitated and, in some cases, unable to do their jobs. Others are having trouble sleeping or concentrating, and still others have symptoms of depression.

The wave of calls has been more than Bridges Counseling can handle, and the clinicians there haven’t been able to see everyone who has tried to make an appointment, he said. Even two weeks after the earthquake, the trend isn’t slowing down. It’s actually growing as aftershocks continue to wear on people, he said.


[‘We’re all shaken up': It’s normal to feel scared, anxious and helpless after a big quake. Here’s what to do about it.]

Mental health therapists around the municipality have been similarly taxed. Suzanne Findlay, a licensed clinical social worker who works in Midtown, said her practice was already at capacity even before getting two new referrals after the earthquake.

“I will make room for them,” she said. “However, if their needs weren’t earthquake related I would not add them to my schedule as my practice is already full.”

Around town, clinicians have had to come up with creative ways to meet demand. James said his practice is offering free support groups in the evening for people who are trying to process their trauma. Deborah Gonzales, a licensed clinical social worker who works in Midtown, said she’s increasing her tele-health openings, meeting with clients virtually on evenings and weekends. In some cases, though, clients just have to wait.

For psychiatrists, the problem is even more pronounced. E. David Hjellen, a psychiatrist who practices in the University-Medical District, said because Anchorage has such a shortage of psychiatrists, it’s normal for practices to place new clients on a waitlist. The earthquake has only extended those waitlists — now, some people may need to wait up to six months to be seen, Hjellen said.

“The house of cards was already pretty tenuous,” he said.

Hjellen, whose practice is only a few months old, said he has more flexibility than established providers, who may have been booked for months out, even before the earthquake. Even so, he’s still having to work outside normal business hours to address everyone asking to be seen. Some clients who are typically resilient are not functioning as well as they would like to be, he said.

“Things that used to not produce stress are now producing stress,” Hjellen said — things like a truck driving by or a cat knocking something over are now potential triggers.

Providers warn that there isn’t an easy way around the shortage, and people seeking care may need to be persistent. Shannon Shea, director of behavioral health at Providence Medical Group Alaska, said that because mental health providers in Anchorage tend to be stretched thin, it may be in a patient’s best interest to simply keep shopping around until they find a provider who is accepting new patients. Providence did not see a large influx of new patients seeking mental health care after the earthquake, Shea said.

Gonzales, the social worker, recommended that people who have access to employee assistance programs through their employers take advantage of that benefit. These programs have contracts with local providers who have agreed to expedite appointments during crises.

Some residents have even started grass-roots support groups. Judy Lavigne, a retired airman from Anchorage, said she had a restless night after the earthquake hit, and after seeing others experience similar symptoms, she planned a meetup on Facebook for anyone working through earthquake anxiety.

Lavigne wound up gathering a small group at an East Anchorage coffee shop to “brainstorm about how we can try to pick up our lives and find where our normal is,” as Lavigne put it.

For Kranawetter, whose anxiety required medical intervention, it looked like it was going to be a waiting game.

“Even if it took all the way to March, I was going to get an appointment,” she said.

It didn’t take until March. Kranawetter said she managed to schedule an appointment for next week, but only after her counselor called a psychiatry practice and asked them to expedite her. She said she worries for those who don’t have that kind of support.

“I had my counselor advocating for me, and I got lucky,” she said.

Madeline McGee

Madeline McGee is a general assignment reporter for the Daily News.