OPINION: Alaska’s young people are suffering. What are we doing to save them?

In Juneau in February, my team and I met with our state legislators to ensure they knew the severity of the youth mental health crisis in Alaska. That crisis may be best summarized with this one harrowing statement: Alaska has the highest rate of youth suicide in the nation.

In all our meetings, no legislator disagreed with us that Alaska’s youths are suffering. In fact, many of them shared their own experiences, driving home the fact that this crisis affects every corner of our vast state.

We are far from the only voices sounding this alarm.

In 2022, an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice determined the state of Alaska is failing to provide appropriate behavioral health treatment options for our youth. Last year, the Anchorage Daily News editorial board called attention to the “paucity of mental health services” in Alaska. Peruse the comments of any mental health-related news stories on social media, and you’ll see that everyone is talking about the need for more mental health services.

What’s often missing from this discourse, however, is just how many behavioral health providers exist in Alaska who are ready and willing to expand their services — especially community-based services.

In February, the Alaska Behavioral Health Association held its spring conference in Juneau. Dozens of nonprofit groups and tribal behavioral health organizations were represented in the room, many with expansive continuums of care ranging from prevention to residential services and serving every population and region of the state.

Many of these organizations are facing one challenge after another when it comes to sustaining current operations due to the lack of investment in behavioral health services, the disparity within Medicaid rate structures, and the workforce challenges that plague every industry.


As a sign of these challenges, multiple youth substance use treatment facilities have had to close their doors in recent years due to inadequate Medicaid rates. VOA Alaska’s ARCH program is the only youth residential substance use treatment facility currently operating in the state.

We are encouraged by the actions of the state Legislature and the Department of Health this year. Current legislation that seeks to address some of these challenges includes:

• HCR 9 and SCR 9, which recognize the need for parity in the provision of mental health and substance use services in Alaska and urge the DOH to adopt regulations to ensure parity is achieved;

• HB 343 and SB 240, which would remove the requirement that school-based services be included in a student’s Individualized Education Plan and that the student have a disability for them to be covered by Medicaid, increasing access to health care for Alaska’s students;

• HB 344 and SB 241, which would approve new Medicaid waiver services that address health-related needs, including workforce development, transportation, housing, and case management;

• SB 24, which would add mental health into the existing health curriculum for public schools in Alaska; and

• HCR 15, which designates May as Mental Health Month, highlights the overwhelming evidence that Alaskans of all ages are suffering, and states that it is “more important than ever to build a stronger mental health system that provides the care, support, and services needed to help people build better lives.”

But more must be done, and we cannot delay. We urge Alaskans to contact their legislators and support actions that will increase investment in community-based services and expand life-saving behavioral health support for young Alaskans.

Julia Luey is the president and CEO of VOA Alaska, a nonprofit providing behavioral health and well-being services to Alaska’s youth, young adults and families. She is a member of the Alaska Behavioral Health Association board of directors.

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