Teen speaks about trouble navigating Alaska’s mental health system

Twilla Farrally pleads for more mental health facilities to help others like her.
Teen speaks about trouble navigating Alaska’s mental health system
Published: May. 25, 2023 at 8:54 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Recent studies show Alaska Natives and American Indians suffer more depression and cases of mental illness than any other group in the country.

Alaska’s News Source told the story of an Alaskan family battling their daughter’s mental illness. She’s now at McLaughlin Youth Center. Being an Alaska Native, her parents tried enrolling her in specialized services, but the waitlist was too long, so they gave up.

Instead, they sought other avenues of treatment.

Eighteen-year-old Twilla Farrally has had it rough. She was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and spent much of her time living in the shadows.

“It’s because of like, my mentality,” Farrally said. “I have FASD and ADHD and depression and anxiety, which makes it really hard.”

Farrally says she can’t always express herself; even though she can form thoughts in her head, she can’t always communicate them. Farrally’s family says she also has a problem controlling her sometimes violent temper.

“The anxiety, depression, and just the anger that she just doesn’t know how to control or deal with,” Twilla’s mother, Sonia Farrally, said.

As a result, Twilla is now at the McLaughlin Youth Center, which is a detention facility for juveniles.

However, she is no stranger to experts and institutions.

“My adoptive parents were like — they tried to shelter me,” Farrally said.

Throughout her life, Farrally and her family have battled her mental illness. They’ve taken her to therapy and private psychiatrists — nothing seemed to work.

“They tried,” Farrally said. “But it was like just — they didn’t know how to deal with my emotions, my anger, my frustrations.”

Then, in 2020, Farrally was sent to a mental health facility in Texas for 11 long months. It was during the COVID-19 pandemic, so parental visits were not allowed.

“I didn’t see them at all, except for on Zoom,” Farrally recalled. “It was really hard because you can’t really hug your family on Zoom. You can just wave and say, ‘Hi, I miss you.’”

But even workers there couldn’t seem to get through, so when Farrally returned home, her family searched for support in Anchorage.

“I just hope that there would be like a lot more facilities that would open, or that would start coming here, something like that,” Farrally said.

“That’s probably one of our biggest challenges here, is simply the lack of residential treatment programs,” said Providence Hospital Nurse Practitioner Mindy Goorchenko.

Goorchenko says Alaska struggles to find resources to handle complex cases like Farrally’s.

“Given the incredible amount of children who are being affected by mental illness, it is often the case that children have either a very long waiting list, or they are being received into the emergency department, evaluated strictly for safety and then sent home, simply because there aren’t enough beds, there aren’t enough spots in some of these higher-level facilities,” Goorchenko said.

A study released by the Centers for Disease Control found the need is there. In 2021, Alaska Natives and American Indians registered the worst among all ethnic groups on key mental health markers such as those seriously considering suicide, making a suicide plan, and for attempting suicide.

Farrally says the McLaughlin Youth Center is actually helping her.

“It’s given me an insight of what was going on before I came here,” Farrally said. “What I want to do with my life is to get a job and be happy.”

Farrally will be a senior next year and plans to graduate with hopes to attend art school. Since she’s 18 now, she’ll be leaving McLaughlin Youth Center soon. She’s currently on the waiting list to go to Presbyterian Hospitality House where she expects to spend the next four to six months.

If you are considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or the Alaska Careline at 1-877-266-4357 (HELP). Call or text 988, or chat at 988lifeline.org. You are not alone. Please visit the State of Alaska Suicide or Crisis Line for additional 988 resources.