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Alaska’s mental health crisis and its harder impact on minorities

  • Author: Valerie Van Brocklin
    | Opinion
  • Updated: May 18
  • Published May 18

Anchorage Police Department activity, Nov. 2, 2013.

The University of Alaska’s Justice Information Center recently released a report on police use of deadly force in Alaska from 2010 to 2020. Among the findings were:

• More than two-thirds of the incidents involved a person with signs of mental illness with one-third expressing some suicidal intent.

• While more than half of the incidents involved white people, American Indians or Alaska Natives (AI/AN) and Black people were involved almost double their percentage in Alaska’s population.

This should come as no surprise. The ADN has been reporting about the state’s mental health crisis for years – citing organizational failures, and tight budgets. Community mental health services have been declining for two decades. That contributed to overburdening the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, which also experienced headline making downfalls – including almost losing accreditation and operating at partial capacity.

The mental health crisis has a disparate impact on AI/AN and Black people because they suffer higher rates of certain mental illnesses and receive less and poorer treatment than whites.

AI/AN have the highest rates of suicide of any racial/ethnic group in the nation. It’s been rising during the two decades Alaska’s community mental health services have dropped. Compared to the general population, AI/AN endure more risk factors for behavioral health problems with an accompanying higher rate, but have limited access to care.

Black people are about 15% of the population, but constitute more than 25% of those in need of mental health care. Their suicide rate increased 200% since 1980, and Black women suffer depression at a 50% higher rate than white women. Yet Black people are less likely to be given antidepressant medications and are the least likely group to receive therapy.

Bottom line: Racial minorities have less access to mental health services than whites, are less likely to receive needed care, and are more likely to receive poor-quality care when they are treated. That’s according to the U.S. Surgeon General.

That’s where police come in. With Alaska cutting back on mental health services and not addressing the disparate impact on minorities, the police get called to handle the fallout – a task for which they are woefully equipped. You can become a police officer in Alaska if you’re 21, have a high school diploma or G.E.D., a valid driver’s license, and have completed an Alaska Police Standards Council (APSC) certified training program. APSC requires 650 total hours of training on 30 required topics without specifying the number of hours on each.

The Alaska Department of Public Safety and the Anchorage Police Department have tried to squeeze in some introductory training on mental health issues, just as they train on CPR, basic first aid, and use of a heart defibrillator. But the latter doesn’t prepare officers to perform brain surgery at an accident scene, and the former doesn’t prepare them to assess and treat people in mental health crises.

Anchorage has started recognizing police aren’t adequately trained to handle people experiencing mental health crises. Starting this year, the city is using new money from an alcohol tax to fund a team of mental health first responders for calls involving persons with a mental health issue. APD fully supports the move. If the tax raises money sufficient to fund a team 24/7, it could divert 7,300 such calls a year, according to Meg Zaletel, a city assemblywoman and mental health lawyer who sponsored the idea.

Having mental health professionals respond to people experiencing mental health crises makes more sense than tasking police with this crisis of our making. Adequately funding community mental health care and ensuring it is equitably available makes even better sense. It not only reduces mental health crises, it results in reduced overall medical costs, homelessness and incarcerations, and increased employment and wages – for the mentally ill and their families.

Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor in Alaska who now trains and writes on criminal justice topics nationwide. She lives in Anchorage.

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