At the invite of Senator Dan Sullivan, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy visited Anchorage on June 26, 2023, to learn about the mental health challenges facing young Alaskans. Throughout the day, Senator Sullivan and Dr. Murthy met with dozens of behavioral health providers, public officials, caregivers, youth, and other community stakeholders.
During a morning roundtable with providers and public officials, Julia Luey, President and CEO, highlighted that while VOA Alaska has expanded community-based services by 200% since 2021, there are still two key factors standing in the way of continuing that growth to meet the need.
The first is Medicaid’s “4 walls rule” that prohibits therapy in the home or other community-like settings. The second are innovative strategies to reimburse the full cost of care for school-based mental health services—VOA currently provides mental health services in 11 Anchorage schools.
“There are more providers, many in this room today,” Julia shared, “who would come to the table to help us expand school-based services if there were sustainable ways to do so. This includes mental health and medical health as they are both beacons to providing true whole-person care.”
Julia concluded her remarks with a quotation from Dr. Murthy’s advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health [PDF]. “I have held on to the words in both of your advisories, Dr. Murthy. I thank you from the ethers of my soul for the alarms you have sounded by issuing these advisories. Your words I have shared with my team countless times and ones I will leave you all with today, ‘This is the moment to demand change—with our voices and with our actions.’”
You can watch Julia’s full remarks on Senator Sullivan’s Facebook page, beginning at 1:18:00.
Later that afternoon, two youth residents of ARCH joined a smaller roundtable of young Alaskans hosted by Alaska Behavioral Health.
Taylor is an 18-year-old Yupik powerhouse of a young woman, raised in rural Alaska. She is in recovery and actively advocating to return home as she navigates OCS and tribal systems of support. She enjoys her native cultural activities, especially fishing, which she is hoping she can return home to do soon.
Kollin is a 17-year-old resilient young man. He was in OCS custody for 9 years and has lived in 40 foster homes. He is currently working towards his transition into the adult community where he’s looking forward to living a sober life and leaning into the incredible gifts that come with a life in recovery.
Taylor and Kollin were joined by youth representatives from Mental Health Advocacy Through Storytelling, Alaska Behavioral Health, and Covenant House Alaska. Senator Sullivan and Dr. Murthy asked them about the impacts of social media, how to reduce stigma, and their experience with receiving mental health support and education in schools.
Throughout the conversation, Kollin reminded everyone that trauma is often at the root of mental health and substance use challenges.
“I see all these programs and resources about ‘let’s learn about drugs,’” Kollin shared, “but they never say what people are put through on drugs or what people experience on drugs. People talk about the disease of drug use and what people do, like steal from people and hurt people. They don’t talk about the why. They don’t talk about what caused it. And most of it was mental health trauma.”
VOA Alaska greatly appreciates Senator Sullivan and Dr. Murthy taking the time to listen to the voices of those impacted by Alaska’s youth mental health crisis. We thank them for validating that this is the number one issue we should be focusing on right now and supporting the work of so many of our community partners to invest in and empower the futures of young Alaskans and their families.