Commentary: Behavioral health services expand and adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic

By Gennifer Moreau
For The Cordova Times

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly changed how Alaskans live, work and play. Along with those changes came disruptions to how we access the physical and behavioral health services needed for healthy productive lives.

This sea change is impacting all of us, and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services’ Division of Behavioral Health is no exception. While much of the attention around the pandemic has been on how to keep people physically safe and healthy, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has encouraged and supported efforts throughout the pandemic to promote Alaskans’ mental well-being. The Division of Behavioral Health’s response has been focused on expanding access to behavioral health treatment and seeking out new funding opportunities to quickly distribute support to communities for both new and continuing services. This is being done while building on existing relationships and increasing partnerships with behavioral health providers across the state. Below are just a few examples of the critical behavioral health projects DBH has been leading:

To date, DBH has distributed over $2 million in U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Emergency COVID-19 grants to providers for behavioral health services in Alaska. These providers are using the funds to offer a wide range of services, including crisis services and expanded medication-assisted treatment for opioid addiction.

Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding is being used to improve suicide prevention and awareness, and to connect people and communities with existing resources. DBH is expanding youth and young adult access to the statewide crisis call center, Careline Alaska (available 24/7 at 877-266-4357). Gov. Dunleavy recently approved funding for DBH to offer technical assistance and consultation around suicide prevention and other behavioral health issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as expanding postvention community planning and training, which can help communities heal after suicide occurs and prevent clusters of suicide.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also putting a heavy strain on Alaska’s health care and emergency response workers. DBH has established the AK Responders Relief Line (844-985-8275) as a resource to support the overall well-being of these first responders and their family members. The call line is confidential and available 24/7 to respond to the needs of Alaskans who are at risk of exposure to COVID-19 as a result of their job in a medical setting.

DBH is increasing the use of telehealth by taking advantage of new flexibilities from the federal government, so individuals can safely access the behavioral health help they need without having to visit their provider in-person.

DBH is also making COVID-19 Response Individualized Services Program funding available to behavioral health providers. CRISP funds provide immediate financial assistance to those providers for COVID-19 expenses, with the goal of stabilizing and maintaining community-based care for clients. CRISP funding has been used to enable access to residential programs for individuals that need to quarantine before being admitted; to provide quarantine for children returning home from out-of-state placements; and to provide educational and therapeutic supports for families and children.

As behavioral health providers adjust their practices to a world with COVID-19, DBH, the Department of Health and Social Services, and Gov. Dunleavy remain committed to supporting them through these and many other efforts. We will implement interventions that address mental illness and substance use disorders across the continuum of care in safe and COVID-conscious ways. We will also continue to seek out new opportunities, create new services, and retool existing resources that support behavioral health providers across the state. Alaskans are resilient people and we will continue to build on that resiliency so every individual can access the right care, at the right time, in the right place.

Gennifer Moreau is director of the Division of Behavioral Health for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.