HEALTH REPORT: Chamber of Commerce discusses behavior health crisis in Fairbanks

Published: Jan. 29, 2019 at 8:03 PM AKST
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The Greater Chamber of Commerce held the first of five discussions on the behavioral health crisis in an ongoing effort in the community and around the state.

Dr. Vanessa Venezia is the medical director for the behavioral health department at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. She says the behavioral health crisis in Fairbanks has a ripple effect on the community, not just with those suffering from mental illness directly, but all those who work, live and have friends and family in the Interior.

"Just on a basic human level, show of hands, who here knows someone who has had a behavioral health illness?" asked Venezia

Venezia spoke about the growing numbers of adults and children in Fairbanks living with behavioral and mental health issues. She says the need far surpasses what the hospital and other agencies capable of providing.

"Certainly when you hear stories of about individuals who have stolen a car because they believe they are member of the FBI and on a special mission, you could question whether that person had a mental health problem that was either undiagnosed or not treated,” said Venezia.

In five years, from 2010 to 2015, the numbers of those seeking behavioral health services nearly doubled, not just in adults, but in Adolescence.

"The biggest areas that have been hit are child and adolescence psychiatric services," she said.

A study conducted by the physicians at the behavior unit brought on much concern. With suicide being the number two cause of death in adolescence next to accidents, students were asked if they felt a sense of hopelessness for two or more weeks. A quarter of them raised their hand and said yes. This was in 2010. By 2015, that number increased by over third.

"Even if you are a child who has the best insurance, it is very difficult to get into psychiatric services," said Venezia.

When the Alaska Psychiatric Institute for the state started taking in less patients this last summer, it effected Fairbanks.

"What ended up happening is, this happened at the same time that the hospital was under some mandatory construction, and so it created a huge impact on care delivery and really impacted the ER," she said.

A state grant is underway to develop a crisis stabilization unit in the ER. This will provide more providers to help patients who are admitted. Venezia says there needs to be an integrated community solution, and with help from legislation and support from the community, this will pave the way for a more successful system.