My Juneau Alaska Experience

I flew to Alaska last week at the invitation of the Juneau chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and spent four days giving speeches and meeting with public officials and mental health advocates. Going to Alaska checked-off one more state on my advocacy list. I have now spoken in every state except for Mississippi, Arkansas and Hawaii.
Of course, saying that I saw Alaska because I visited Juneau is a bit like saying that I saw the entire lower 48 states because I spent a week in Boston. Geography has never been one of my strong suits. Even so, I always knew Alaska was huge.  You really don’t have any idea how massive or beautiful it is, however, until you see — even small parts of – it.
My hostesses, NAMI Juneau Executive Director Kathryn “Katie” Chapman and community activist Sharon Gaiptman, kept me running. Literally. I was interviewed on four radio shows and by local newspaper reporter Amanda Compton. I gave five speeches in a four day period. I met with local and state mental health officials at a private dinner with the NAMI board and was able to chat with Walter L. Carpeneti, the chief Justice of the Alaska Supreme Court.  In addition, I met with District Court Judge Keith Levy who is launching a Mental Health Court in Juneau. Whew!

Despite my jam-packed schedule, Katie made certain that I got to see some Juneau sites and learn a bit about the Alaskan capital.

      *Juneau is the only U.S. Capital that you can’t reach by driving. It sits at sea level next to the Gastineau Channel and at the base of steep mountains that rise four thousand feet. On top of those mountains is the Juneau icefield, an ice mass from which thirty glaciers flow. All of the roads in-and-out of Juneau eventually dead end, usually at the foot of a mountain.
     *Much of South Franklin Street – a main street in Juneau – and a popular area for tourists, shuts down completely during the winter.  Called “Disneyland” by some locals, the stores near the docks sell souvenirs, jewelry, perfumes and knickknacks to the one million tourists who flock to Juneau during the summer, mainly on cruise boats. But those trinkets, the store’s actual owners, and the people who work in them during the tourist season have almost nothing to do with the actual Juneau community and its 31,000 residents.  I wonder how many of those shoppers realize that  they are buying souvenirs made in China and have absolutely no real link with Alaska?
     *Every resident of Alaska gets a check from the state each year simply for being a resident. The money comes from oil revenues. Last year’s check was for $1,174.

And now the not fun stuff.
     *Alcohol abuse in Alaska is twice the average in other U.S. states. It is a major health problem.  So is drug abuse.  According to SAMSHA,  twelve percent of Alaskans from age 12 and higher frequently use illegal drugs.  If you look only at marijuana, you will discover that 17 percent of the state’s residents regularly smoke pot. Of course, alcohol and drug abuse often hide underlying mental health issues, which is why Alaska leads the nation when it comes to co-occurring health problems.
     *Alaska has more than 129 villages with less than 1,000 residents.  Many of these communities are only accessible by airplane and few have any medical services. Most of them rely on volunteer safety officers to keep the peace. Crisis Intervention Team Training, which teaches law enforcement officers how to deal with persons with mental illnesses, is nearly non-existent in the state. There are no psychiatrists in the smaller communities. While tele-psychiatry is offered in a few villages, if a resident becomes dangerous or needs intensive care, that person must go to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage for treatment.  I was told patients who are discharged often end up stuck in Anchorage because they either are not welcomed back in their villages, they need ongoing mental health care or they have become psychotic and homeless.
      *In 1956, elected officials set aside one million acres of prime Alaskan land as a perpetual trust to finance programs for persons suffering from mental illnesses. Known as the Alaskan Mental Health Trust, these monies are used to fund innovative programs.  Despite this, Alaska remains far behind when it comes to implementing evidence based practices, Assertive Community Treatment Teams, and peer-to-peer services.  When NAMI issued its most recent, Grading of the States Report, Alaska got a D grade, which tells you how far the state has to go if it wants to begin meeting the many needs of its residents.

I found Juneau residents to be deeply concerned about their community. A standing room only crowd of more than 120 attended a free public speech that I delivered my final night in Juneau at a local college. Several members from the audience told me how difficult it is in Alaska to get fundalmental mental health care. But the two biggest issues that I heard repeatedly were problems caused by alcoholism and drug abuse, and a state wide lack of psychiatrists.
I was impressed with the people in Juneau. It is small and isolated enough that people take time to learn their neighbors’ names and actually say hello when they pass each other on the streets. It is a town where the windows of merchants are covered with posters advertising community events — including my appearance. (It is strange to have breakfast in a shop with a poster of yourself on the wall!)
I felt hopeful and enthused when I went to the airport to catch my flight home, and then an odd thing happened. I saw a uniformed airport security guard escorting a young man in his twenties through the Juneau airport to the TSA checkpoint. I was already in line to go through the screening. From his mumbling and odd mannerisms, I suspected the young man had a mental illness. The guard gave him a packet of papers but the young man refused to take them at first because, as he put it, “I can’t touch them now that you touched them.” The security guard forced them into his hands.
I watched him pacing and pacing. Then he threw the papers in a trash can and began pacing again. On the other side of the TSA checkpoint, I saw the security guard. I asked him if the man had a mental problem. He confirmed it and explained the youth was not thinking clearly. His parents had somehow arranged for him to be brought to the airport where a ticket was waiting so that he would come home. The guard had helped him get the ticket.
I waited outside our gate until I was the last person to board.
The young man never made it through security. I have no idea where he went or why he didn’t make the flight. I wonder what his parents, who were expecting him to come home, thought when he didn’t arrive. Had he simply walked out of the airport into the cold or had he been arrested for causing a disturbance, which often happens in such cases? What might have happened if he had actually boarded our flight?
Seeing him was a vivid reminder to me of how every day someone with a mental disorder is struggling and why all of us must do more to improve our broken system both in Alaska and the rest of our nation.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.