Presented by Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority
Part 4 of 4
Exciting additions to Alaska’s behavioral health care facilities are breaking ground this summer and next year, aiming to provide new treatment options for residents struggling with mental health emergencies.
The landmark facilities, known as crisis stabilization centers, are coming to Anchorage and Juneau thanks to a partnership between some of the state’s largest health care providers, including Southcentral Foundation, Providence Alaska and Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau.
“There’s excitement,” Michelle Baker, executive vice president of Behavioral Health Services at Southcentral Foundation, said about the emerging programs.
“People want their loved ones to receive services in a crisis stabilization program rather than in an emergency room, jail, or in hospitals,” she said. “The community wanted this yesterday.”
Crisis stabilization centers are designed solely to treat behavioral health emergencies and are a key component of the Crisis Now model.
Under the model, providers offer different levels of behavioral health services, so people can get the treatment they need, when they need it. Among the recommendations already implemented in Alaska are a 24/7 crisis call center and mobile crisis teams. Soon, crisis stabilization centers will add another option for mental health care.
Crisis Now is being put in place in many communities to prevent suicide, reduce visits to emergency rooms and correctional settings, and to provide the best support for individuals in crisis in Alaska.
In a first for Alaska, new crisis stabilization centers will bring different tiers of care for behavioral health emergencies, overhauling how local hospitals manage these crises in Anchorage.
Meanwhile in Juneau, adolescents and adults will have crisis stabilization options within their community for the first time.
In Anchorage, crisis stabilization centers will ‘meet people where they’re at’
At Southcentral Foundation, which serves 70,000 Alaska Native people and community members, a crisis stabilization center will open next year in Anchorage.
The need for crisis stabilization centers is clear. At Southcentral Foundation, five of the 10 highest health care needs are related to behavioral health, Baker said.
The technical name for these centers is 23-hour stabilization centers, because the model is to assess, treat, and discharge with connections to community resources within a 23-hour period, said Baker.
“Some might need a hot meal and then they’re out the door,” Baker said. “While other individuals might stay longer than 23 hours.”
The centers offer behavioral health patients an alternative to emergency room visits, with a space designed more as a living room than a clinical setting.
A major goal of the Crisis Now model is to help people in mental health crises recover in the least restrictive environment possible, said Summer LeFebvre, clinical director at Southcentral Foundation Behavioral Services Division in Anchorage.
“We’re trying to meet people where they’re at,” LeFebve said, “in a different way than you do in a hospital. Without cords and machines, but instead, a person, in a living room, with people who are specially trained to support them. That’s a big shift in the way we’ve been doing it.”
Another crisis stabilization center slated to open in Anchorage is at Providence Alaska, which has been working closely alongside Southcentral Foundation, the Alaska Mental Health Trust and other partners.
“The community is really suffering from a lack of services,” said Renee Rafferty, senior director of behavioral health services for Providence Alaska.
Currently, Alaskans must wait for behavioral health appointments for months, Rafferty said, even when they require immediate care.
“The longer you wait, the harder your health is to maintain,” Rafferty said. “People do end up getting sicker.”
To address this, Providence is planning to have three different programs, Rafferty said. First, a behavioral health walk-in clinic that operates during the week will provide behavioral health based urgent care for adolescents and adults.
Second will be a crisis stabilization program, designed to assess, treat and engage in safety planning for discharge within 23 hours. Lastly, a crisis residential program will provide treatment for patients that need longer stabilization.
These crisis stabilization centers, which are solely for behavioral health emergencies, will be a first for Alaska, Rafferty said.
“If someone’s experiencing anxiety, they can come in, talk to a provider and get help with deescalating or getting medications, developing a safety plan, and getting referrals,” Rafferty said. “Right now, those emergencies are going to the emergency room.”
Being able to accept all patients experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis in a community behavioral health setting is a “no wrong door” approach, Rafferty said — a crucial aspect of the Crisis Now model.
“So, anybody can walk in and get services for substance use withdrawal, anxiety or depression, or any other behavioral health crisis,” Rafferty said.
The program is funded by the Alaska Mental Health Trust; the state Legislature, advocated for by Sen. Natasha Von Imhof; federal funding secured by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and the Municipality of Anchorage.
“We’re excited to be part of something that is going to be long term, long lasting and have an impact on the emergency system and the behavioral health system at the same time,” Rafferty said.
Community-based behavioral health treatment in Juneau
In Southeast Alaska, local youth with urgent behavioral health issues have no access to residential centers, according to Juneau’s Bartlett Regional Hospital, and must often be taken out of their community to receive care.
These stressful conditions only add new obstacles during challenging times, the hospital says. Now, it is opening a crisis stabilization center that will change that.
Bartlett Regional Hospital’s Aurora Behavioral Health Center is set to open this summer, offering accessible crisis care, eight beds, 23-hour crisis observation and stabilization, and up to 7-day crisis residential services, once fully staffed.
The new facility will help address the community’s rising needs for behavioral health services, which leapt 33% from 2020 to 2021. Approximately 40 behavioral health visits occurred each month at Juneau’s hospital in 2021 on average, the hospital reports.
A peer support specialist will be the first and last person clients interact with during their stay, said Tracy Dompeling, chief behavioral health officer at Bartlett Regional Hospital. Peer support specialists help throughout the process, offering both hope and professional guidance.
“They are there to help support and encourage folks because they, too, have lived experience,” Dompeling said. “They are able to share that experience in a professional and appropriate manner, to help encourage somebody that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that there are services available for them.”
Crisis navigators connect patients with services outside of the stabilization services and help follow up, support, and provide intensive case management, Dompeling said.
As the Aurora Behavioral Health Center will also serve youth, fewer children and teenagers will need to leave the Juneau area for treatment, for both one-time intervention and ongoing care, Bartlett Regional Hospital says.
For adults, the center will provide a “step-down approach” from inpatient hospitalization, for people being discharged from the Mental Health Unit who still need support.
‘The power of community, the power of nature, and the power of connection’
Crisis stabilization centers, and the other components of Crisis Now, are solid foundations for building a more comprehensive system of mental health care for Alaska. But there’s still much work to be done.
In regional hubs like Kotzebue and Nome, hospitals are working to increase capacity to serve mental health patients. Each community will need individual solutions, because each one is unique.
“The big goal is to make sure that there are services like 23-hour stabilization centers in all of our hub communities that are culturally relevant,” said Alaska Chief Medical Officer Anne Zink.
When it comes to smaller communities in Alaska, “the tools that we need to think about are different,” Zink said. “We need to include education about … the power of community, the power of nature and the power of connection.”
Together with local leaders, Alaska’s behavioral health care providers hope to build a statewide network that includes the Crisis Now model, supports individual needs and lifts communities.
For Rafferty, efforts like implementing Crisis Now, led by the Alaska Mental Health Trust, the State and other partners are a crucial step forward.
“They’re working to create a no-wrong-door system where you can get the services you need, and then the system helps you figure out what the next step is,” Rafferty said.
By building onto the Crisis Now model, residents facing behavioral health emergencies will receive better support and services — the impacts of which will have positive impacts throughout Alaska.
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.