Behavioral health means resilience and well-being

Alaskans love to fish! Already, trips to favorite fishing places are being planned, and dreams of big catches dreamed.

So, imagine standing on the shore of your favorite river when suddenly you see a person being swept downstream, thrashing to keep their head above water. We would, in an instant, make every effort to rescue that person and get them on solid, safe ground.

Let me connect this drowning person to problems our community experiences: crime, homelessness and Alaska’s poor reading scores.

Every day, there are people around us being swept down a torrential river of personal trauma. These are people of all ages, but for this discussion, I want to focus on kids — kids who are careening down a river of multiple sources of stress and trauma.

Maybe you’ve heard of Adverse Childhood Experiences — ACEs. These are events such as violence, neglect, sexual assault, and uncertain home and life situations. When children experience these kinds of toxic stress, they are so distracted and overwhelmed that they can’t learn or interact appropriately with others. Adults may respond to them by asking them, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you behave?” The real question is, “What’s happening in your life that is overwhelming you?”

Alaska has a problem. It’s not new — we all know it.

• The child maltreatment rate is 69% higher here than the national average.


• Almost 50% of substantiated abuse occurs in kids ages 0-4.

• Our kids are 56% more likely to be abused than kids nationally — 14.5 out of every 1,000 kids in Alaska versus 9.5 nationally.

• We have the nation’s highest rate of reported sexual assault at more than four times the national average, and more than half of all reported victims are juveniles. The most common age of sexual assault victims is 15 years old.

• We rank at the bottom for fourth-grade reading competency.

Yikes — it feels overwhelming!

But there’s good news. Kids recognize they are experiencing something they need help with, and help is becoming more available.

Alaskans have increased access to mental health services. Providers such as Alaska Behavioral Health are working to reduce or eliminate waitlists for services. It used to take up to six months for new children and families to enroll in services, with the highest need cases bumping others down the list; now the average for all clients is less than two weeks.

Alaska Behavior Health, or AkBH, served 600 kids in a four-month period alone, through outpatient clinics, with predominately trauma-focused care. About 66% of those children had complex trauma experiences, with post-traumatic stress disorder being the most common diagnosis. AkBH is part of the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, which pulls together trauma experts from around the country. As a member, AkBH leverages that expertise to serve Alaska kids.

The Anchorage School District has school-based mental health capacity through Volunteers of America and Alaska Behavior Health, who have clinicians working in our schools.

Families find support through organizations such as Safe Families for Children, whose focus is on families who are in crisis. Their services assist parents get back on track, and supports kids during the process.

There is increased understanding and respect for the positive step of seeking help. The pandemic placed focus on mental health and the realization of our need for each other. We recognize that needing help isn’t a reflection of something “wrong” but an accumulation of stressors.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Let’s remember our need for positive connection with others. Remember, any listening person can help a child or family. Any caring person can connect someone with the help needed to reduce stress, build resilience and establish a foundation for well-being. Just as any one of us would try to help that person drowning in the river.

Cathy Giessel is a lifelong Alaskan, RN and Advanced Nurse Practitioner. She volunteers her services in multiple Anchorage healthcare settings and serves on the board of directors of Alaska Behavioral Health. She formerly served in the Alaska State Senate.

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Cathy Giessel

Cathy Giessel, a Republican, is a former Alaska state senator. She represented District N, covering parts of Anchorage and communities along Turnagain Arm.