Presented by Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority
Part 3 of 4
Like many Alaskans, the state’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Anne Zink, has been affected by mental health emergencies within her family. Zink’s younger sister died by suicide after being hospitalized several times for depression.
In one instance, her sister was hospitalized for a week.
“I’ll never forget, she told me that the aide who was assigned to watch her … was the only person who sat down with her and asked her why she was there, and treated her like a whole person,” Zink said.
In standard practice, Zink’s sister was put on suicide watch. But a week later, she was released straight back into her normal life, almost as if nothing had happened.
“It was incredibly humiliating to her, demoralizing,” Zink said. “I remember her saying, ‘How can I expect my shoelaces to be taken and then a week later for me to go back to work and be a functional adult?’”
For Zink, the experience marked the first time she questioned how the medical system treats people.
“That’s how I entered my residency, with that perspective and background,” Zink said. “I just continued to see how our system really does fail patients who are struggling with mental health and wellness.”
Today, Alaska behavioral health care providers are working together to bridge the gap between treatment options and residents’ needs. Mobile Crisis Teams are one crucial component, and in Fairbanks, Anchorage, and now starting in Mat-Su, these teams are providing superior care for Alaskans in need of help.
Mobile Crisis Teams are part of Crisis Now, a model for behavioral health care that provides a matrix of services — also including a 24/7 crisis call center and crisis stabilization services — that together help prevent crises from escalating to emergency room visits or local jails. Since their launch in Alaska, Mobile Crisis Teams have brought measurable results.
Alaska’s leaders in behavioral health have partnered to bring these improvements to communities, led by the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, in coordination with the State of Alaska Departments of Health and Family and Community Services and a network of partners.
In Fairbanks, one team diverts more than 80% of all emergencies.
The Fairbanks Mobile Crisis Team’s primary goal is reducing hospitalizations and jail time for people experiencing a mental health crisis, said Fairbanks Crisis Now Coordinator Brenda McFarlane.
The team helps people in crisis feel at ease.
“They’re not in uniforms, they’re not in vehicles with sirens,” said McFarlane. “They look like neighbors or regular community members.”
The teams are often made up of two individuals: A licensed mental health clinician and a peer support specialist, who together go into the community, meet the caller and listen to their concerns.
Peer support specialists have lived experience with mental health conditions or substance misuse and are able to draw on their own experience to connect with those who are struggling.
“They’re able to meet them in their clothes and in their home, in a place that makes them feel whole as a person,” Zink said.
As a result, emergency room departments see reduced usage and strain , and importantly, people in crisis avoid a potentially stressful or challenging setting.
Data indicates great results: The Fairbanks mobile crisis team, launched in 2021, has been successful in diverting 81.8% of law enforcement involvement and emergency room visits from these calls, Zink said.
And in January, only 2% of calls required escalation with law enforcement or emergency services thanks to the Fairbanks team.
The team works with the Fairbanks Police Department to coordinate response, based on situation severity and other details. That collaboration is crucial, McFarlane said.
“We have calls where law enforcement goes with the team, or stages after the team, depending on the severity, so having that relationship be trusting and collaborative is essential,” she said.
“It’s one of those services that Fairbanks has always needed, but nobody had been able to make it pencil out at the end of the day until now,” said Sarah Koogle, clinic manager for Alaska Behavioral Health.
Mobile Crisis Teams are powerful thanks to how they address a person’s hierarchy of needs, Koogle said. Instead of treating someone in an emergency setting, the teams connect clients to a variety of resources to help alleviate their crisis, such as food, housing or counseling.
Recently begun in Mat-Su, new Mobile Crisis Teams offer powerful peer support
True North Recovery operates the newest of the Mobile Crisis Teams that have recently begun operating in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough; their teams are made up of a clinician and a peer support specialist.
Working with local dispatch, law enforcement, and emergency responders, the teams have been responding to behavioral health emergency calls since March, supporting those individuals’ needs in the community, versus in a hospital or more intense care setting.
James Savage, director of operations at True North Recovery’s Day One center in Wasilla, understands how powerful a common bond can be for others seeking help.
“I myself am a person with lived experience, a person in long-term recovery from a substance use disorder,” Savage said. Today he helps others get through hard times.
“For a long time, a group of people that had recovered was not necessarily the first group that everybody wanted to go to for advice,” Savage said.
“The power in peer support is that they can “join them, and come alongside them, and say ‘we’ve been through what you’re going through,” he said.
In addition to their lived experience, peers are also equipped with knowledge of local resources and can help individuals navigate the supports and services they need following their emergency, such as medication management or seeing a counselor.
By coupling a peer with lived experience and access to community resources with a masters-level clinician, Mat-Su’s Mobile Crisis Teams can offer both therapeutic interventions as well as tangible support to those in need.
Anchorage team brings relief: ‘You were there when I needed you the most’
Anchorage’s Mobile Crisis Team is reporting success, too. The team operates seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. The Anchorage Fire Department oversees staffing.
Their success rate has also been overwhelmingly positive, said Anchorage Fire Department Mobile Integrative Health Coordinator Mike Riley. When the team started in the summer of 2021, they only received one or two calls a day. Now, the team receives up to 10 calls a day.
Surveys from people who have used the service indicate a high level of satisfaction, he said, with community members indicating they felt respected and helped.
“We got feedback that said, ‘You were there when I needed you the most. You called me the next day and that was really what I needed. People cared. I was supported,’” Riley said.
He believes this is due to how their team approaches calls — with a different lens than police, fire and emergency responders, who work at a lightning-quick pace.
“Instead, we come, we slow things down, and we really give an opportunity to listen,” Riley said.
Anchorage’s Mobile Crisis Team is seeking to expand beyond four full-time employees to become a 24/7 operation, like Fairbanks. It also hopes to provide same-day crisis therapy and same-day medication refills. Riley said many callers have run out of medications for mental health disorders, so that may be a powerful tool to help avert many emergencies.
A better way to respond
Adding Mobile Crisis Teams to more communities is a major step in the right direction, Zink said.
“I’m really excited about the Crisis Now model as a part of the continuum of care,” Zink said. “Instead of my sister having to go to the emergency department and have one person kind of caring about her, and having her shoelaces and clothes taken, there’s a better option.”
Mobile Crisis Teams in Anchorage are funded primarily by the Municipality of Anchorage’s alcohol tax. In other communities, the Alaska Mental Health Trust has supported start-up costs as the programs build sustainability.
“These teams meet people where they are in community and respond with care, compassion and patience. Understanding the experience and needs of an individual in crisis is incredibly important and effective,” said Trust COO Katie-Baldwin Johnson.
Some people will still need additional services.
“But I love the fact that so many fewer people don’t have to go through the trauma of even just coming to the emergency department in the first place,” Zink said.
NEXT: With rising need for mental health services, new no-barrier crisis stabilization centers opening in Juneau and Anchorage, and planned in other communities, offer better options for Alaska.
Read the rest of the series: Part 1 - Part 2
The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority is a state corporation that administers the Alaska Mental Health Trust to improve the lives of beneficiaries. Beneficiaries of the Trust include Alaskans who experience mental illness, developmental disabilities, chronic alcohol or drug addiction, Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia, or traumatic brain injuries. Learn more at AlaskaMentalHealthTrust.org.
This story was produced by the sponsored content department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.