EDITORIAL: The danger of ignoring Alaska’s mental health needs

It was a nightmare scenario for Anchorage hikers: A dangerous, clearly unwell man assaulting trail users for days near a popular trailhead. Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt, and the man — 38-year-old Sean Ahmed — was apprehended by police and booked before his accosting of hikers grew more violent. But just a day later, owing to miscommunication between state and municipal prosecutors, Ahmed was back out on the trail and once again endangering those who came to the area to recreate. While we’re fortunate the consequences weren’t more severe for Ahmed or those he encountered near the Basher Drive trailhead, the incident is a window into a mental health treatment system that is badly overloaded when it works at all. And it’s a reminder of how we all pay the price when we fail to take care of Alaskans’ unmet mental health needs.

Last week’s incident brought to mind a similar incident with far greater consequences, when Anchorage resident Angela Harris was stabbed at the Loussac Library in February 2022 by a man who had been released from custody — despite recent attacks on other women — because he was found mentally unfit to stand trial. The situations differ in some important regards, but they share the common thread of mentally unwell Alaskans slipping through the cracks in a criminal justice system that is manifestly unfit to adequately deal with them.

There have been earnest, albeit piecemeal, efforts to address Alaska’s unmet mental health needs. A contentious effort to turn around Alaska Psychiatric Institute by contracting out its management to private firm Wellpath resulted in an increase in staffed beds at the state’s only state-run inpatient mental health facility, but it didn’t solve high staff turnover, mistreatment of patients and staff or other issues — and still left API well short of accommodating the 80 patients it was built for. And, as anyone who has worked in social services, health care or corrections in Anchorage can tell you, even 80 beds are far too few to meet our state’s needs.

In the Legislature, Sen. Matt Claman has authored a bill that aims to help close the legal loopholes that led to Harris’ stabbing, requiring the state to petition for the involuntary commitment of people like Corey Ahkivgak, the man who stabbed Harris. But bills like Claman’s are a delicate balancing act between keeping the public safe from potentially dangerous people while also preserving, as much as possible, the civil rights of everyone involved. Claman’s bill passed the Senate but didn’t make it through the House before the end of this year’s legislative session; House members should make a priority of taking action on the bill when they return in January 2024.

The paucity of mental health services isn’t just an issue that affects the criminal justice system, either. Unmet mental health needs — and the substance abuse that results from attempts to self-medicate — are at the center of a big slice of Anchorage’s homelessness conundrum. And because there are too few treatment options, many people with severe mental health issues end up at hospitals or in jails, taxing two systems that are not designed to address their specific needs. Because the state is unwilling to devote sufficient resources to meet Alaska’s mental health treatment needs, we all pay for it indirectly a dozen ways every day — in the expensive cycle of chronic homelessness, in health insurance premiums, in longer emergency medical service response times, and even in feeling uneasy about using Anchorage’s world-class trails. A legitimate treatment solution may be expensive, but it can’t be more expensive than the failing patchwork of partial remedies we rely on now.

Anchorage Daily News editorial board

Editorial opinions are by the editorial board, which welcomes responses from readers. Board members are ADN President Ryan Binkley, Publisher Andy Pennington and Opinion Editor Tom Hewitt. The board operates independently from the ADN newsroom. To submit feedback, a letter or longer commentary for consideration, email commentary@adn.com.