How life inside a mental health treatment facility changed in a COVID-19 world

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – Neil Givens is a carpenter by trade. He found himself in the grips of addiction following the housing market crash in 2008.

“Drugs and alcohol put a weight on my will, and the longer I did it the heavier it got,” Givens said. He describes his life as a homeless drug addict in Fairbanks; trying to solve his life’s issues with drugs, he says, is like working a mathematical equation with no solution.

After getting into trouble with the law Givens was provided the option of addiction treatment. For the last year he’s been living at a residential treatment facility in Anchorage, operated by Akeela Inc., a nonprofit Behavioral Health program.

Givens says the coronavirus is an added stressor at the facility. Viruses can spread rapidly from patient to patient in residential facilities, but according to Akeela coronavirus has not surfaced in any of their three residential facilities.

Visitations have been postponed as a precaution to prevent patients from contracting the virus, Givens says, adding to a sense of isolation.

“People have a lot of concerns and worries: what will they be doing, where will they be living?” Givens said. “It puts an added stress, worrying ‘are my parents okay? Are my children okay? Are my friends going to be alright?’”

“Everybody’s concerned about the possibility of not surviving it,” he finished.

Givens says addicts in treatment tend to rely on each other to get through their addictions. As person-to-person interactions are limited within the facility that element of shared recovery is, in a sense, lost.

“It’s a little more challenging not being able to go to meetings; get out to the library; using some of the resources the community has to help us delve into our problems and find solutions,” Givens said.

While life in Givens’ facility has certainly changed, he says residents still have consistent remote access to Akeela’s mental health providers. The program’s Chief Executive Officer, Courtney Donovan says from the time the virus started its more aggressive spread in Alaska they had a short window to determine how to maintain services.

“In a matter of four days, we really had to provide our staff and clients with the technology that they needed, and the training that they needed, to provide similar services almost entirely remotely,” Donovan said.

This rapid transition has brought both positive and negative changes, according to Akeela Lead Counselor Rachel Buddin-Young. While the face-to-face interactions which are so crucial to successful treatment have disappeared, online connections have soared.

“We anticipated that we would have less involvement from our clients, but what we’ve found is we’re actually engaging with people more,” Buddin-Young said. “We don’t want anybody to fall through the cracks, so we have systems in place to make sure everyone is receiving the services they need.”

Programs like Akeela and others in Alaska’s nonprofit behavioral health sector are receiving support from the state, according to a spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services Division of Behavioral Health.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an emergency response from the division, as the services provided by behavioral health agencies are essential to maintaining the health and well-being of Alaskans,” DHSS said.

DHSS confirmed state health officials have eased restrictions on providers’ use of digital technologies and telehealth in order to maintain services for Alaskans in need.

As the manner in which mental health providers interact with patients can rapidly change in the COVID-19 pandemic, the Division of Behavioral Health is communicating emergent behavioral health guidance directly to providers through multiple platforms.

But maintaining behavioral health services comes at a high cost during a time when Alaska’s economy has drastically slowed.

The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority (AMHTA), a state corporation which works to improve Alaska’s mental health programs, says nonprofit programs like Akeela and others across the state are receiving funds from a variety of sources to continue providing services while the coronavirus fuels an economic slowdown.

“These challenging times are naturally creating or increasing stress and anxiety in some individuals, so it is essential to maintain our system of care to serve those who rely on it now or those who will need it in the coming weeks,” an AMHTA spokesperson said.

Nonprofit mental health providers are accessing federal financial relief through the CARES Act. Donations from Alaska’s philanthropic community are also helping providers maintain services according to AMHTA.

Individuals seeking mental health services can dial 2-1-1 to be connected to local providers. Those who are in crisis and in need of immediate support can contact the state’s Crisis Careline at 1-877-266-4357. This line is available 24/7.

Copyright KTUU 2020. All rights reserved.

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