Alaska’s youth mental health services at critical low
Alaska leads nation in rate of youth suicide and depression, many youths have unmet needs
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska leads the nation in the rate of young people who die by suicide, according to data released by Alaska Public Health Analytics and Providence Hospital.
The data also show that one in every five children in Alaska will attempt suicide. According to the study, 50% of all lifetime mental health illnesses begin by age 14. In Alaska alone, at least 80% of young people with mental illness have unmet needs.
Sixteen-year-old Wyatt McGowen loves to play his saxophone, but the music in his life began to fade two years ago when he considered taking his own life.
“I did have a plan,” McGowen said.
Wyatt said he was so depressed he would use a pocketknife to cut himself.
“To feel something because I was pretty empty inside,” McGowen said. “Because all my emotions would be drained.”
McGowen had low self-esteem as a result of being bullied at school, something that’s still hard for him to talk about today.
“All the stuff that happened in seventh grade and what those people said and did to me, and it’s just a tough topic,” McGowen said.
McGowen’s mother took him into Providence Hospital’s Behavioral Health Center to get treatment.
“I know that they have a really good program there,” Lonea McGowen said. “I wanted to get him in there to teach him some coping skills to deal with issues that are going on right now.”
After three weeks in intensive treatment, he returned home and eventually got back on track. His love of music even returned.
“He missed all of eighth grade,” Lonea said. “So when he came into high school, he was able to go into the music program, marching band, jazz and just excelled 360.”
Brandy Stratman works with the adolescent girl’s treatment program at Providence Hospital. She says the need for mental health services in the Anchorage area is critical.
“We’re coming out of a pandemic in which lots of people were isolated from primary support,” Stratman said. “There’s definitely a lack of resources, there’s definitely people who are suffering.”
Stratman says inpatient mental health facilities in the Anchorage area are also suffering. They’re already full, so teens who endured mental health issues during the pandemic find themselves going to emergency rooms instead.
“Now we have people who were at the end of a progression of something that now makes it acute,” Stratman said. “The intensity of the services they need is vastly different now. And then that presents the burden, you know, higher where our higher levels of care are overburdened, and we don’t have the amount of resources we need here either.”
In 2023, the CDC released a study based on findings from the year 2021 that found 42% of high school students felt so sad or hopeless every day for at least two weeks in a row that they stopped doing their usual activities.
The study shows 46% of Hispanic students, 41% of white students and 40% of Alaska Native or American Indian students fell into that category. At least 57% of the surveyed female students reported hopelessness, and 29% of the male students.
In terms of sexual orientation, 69% of the teen LGBQ+ community felt hopeless for two weeks and 78% of those attracted only to the same sex felt hopeless for an extended period of time.
That study also found that females and LGBQ+ or gay and bisexual students, especially, are more likely to experience poor mental health and have suicidal thoughts and behaviors. 13% of females, 22% of LGBQ+ young people and 33% of gay or bisexual students attempted suicide.
“Suicidal ideation and self-harm makes us anxious, and when parents are anxious and scared, they are rarely calm,” Stratman said. “So, it’s important to access support.”
Stratman says it’s just as important for parents to find support when they need it because a well-adjusted adult is more likely to see the signs and reach out to a ch,ild before it’s too late.
“Even those small moments of support, of checking in, are really important,” Stratman said. “It could take just one adult to be the person to make the difference.”
Wyatt says it made all the difference in the world to him.
“Reach out about your problems, because it’s not going to get better if you don’t help yourself,” Wyatt said.
The U.S. Department of Justice recently determined that Alaska has insufficient community-based support for youth mental health services. Providence Hospital and Volunteers of America offer mental health services to 15 schools in Anchorage and three in Kodiak.
If you or someone you know is struggling or needs immediate support, contact Careline at 1-877-266-HELP, call or text 988, or chat at 988lifeline.org. You are not alone. Please visit 988.Alaska.gov for additional 988 resources. For more information on the Alaska Suicide Prevention Council and suicide in Alaska, visit https://health.alaska.gov/suicideprevention.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that Alaska leads the nation in suicide rates, not the overall number of youth who die by suicide.
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