‘This is creating havoc’: Juneau regional hospital’s mental health surge continues

In 2020, Bartlett Regional Hospital braced for a surge of COVID-19 patients. It got a surge of mental health crises instead.

Bartlett behavioral health staff tie the surge in patients to spring break 2020. Students left the classroom for vacation and returned to a whole new reality. COVID-19 cases were increasing statewide and remote learning suddenly replaced their school day routines.

“We started to see kids and families and adults coming in struggling with the immediate changes that we as a community took on,” said Bradley Grigg, who leads the behavioral health arm of the regional hospital.

He says those social restrictions are causing spikes in anxiety, depression, substance use, and self-harm — for students, parents and just about everyone experiencing the disruption of the pandemic.

Bradley Grigg in his office on April 15, 2021. (Claire Stremple/KTOO)

Since last March, Grigg says patient visits have doubled to a thousand a month. And of those, he says more than 100 come to the emergency room. It works out to four people in crisis in Juneau per day.

“I hope that no one deals with what we’re seeing,” he said. “It’s a pandemic all within itself. And it’s creating more havoc — yes. COVID has created inconveniences for us. This is creating havoc.”

Juneau isn’t an outlier. Kristina Weltzin is a mental health clinician for the state’s health department.

“In all of our communities, the information that we’re getting is that absolutely, you know, behavioral health issues have increased dramatically,” Weltzin said.

In a state survey, most adults reported their mental health has worsened over the last year. More than half of parents reported that their child was more anxious or sad than usual.

Grigg says in the last year, he’s hired about 35 mental health staff to keep up with demand. He now manages a staff of 150. CARES money helps fund those new positions now, but Grigg says they will be permanent roles that reflect a new normal in Bartlett’s Behavioral Health program.

“When people are in crisis, whether it’s even if it’s just outpatient, we don’t want to waitlist them,” he said.

Even with increased staff, there’s still a waitlist for non-emergency patients.

The hospital started a Crisis Intervention Services team this spring. It provides follow-up support to patients after they are discharged from the emergency department. That team is available for in-home visits seven days a week and works with patients until they’re stable.

Grigg got emotional when he talked about how this affects kids. Prior to COVID-19, kids were only about a third of the patients in the behavioral health department. Now, children make up the majority of the hospital’s behavioral health patients and a quarter of the department’s emergency room traffic.

Hospital-recorded suicide attempts have quadrupled among teenagers. For children 13 and younger the hospital recorded one suicide attempt in 2019. In 2020, there were seven.

“The devastation that we’re seeing with kids, with families, when they can’t survive this because their anxiety or their depression or their substance use is so out of control … It’s an effect that, unless you’re seeing it every day, you don’t know how infiltrated it has been in our community,” Grigg said.

Restrictions have eased and more than 70% of Juneau’s eligible population has had its first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. But Grigg said the patient load hasn’t decreased, it’s just leveled off. “It’s unrelenting,” he said. “It’s not stopping.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide or in need of care, help is available:

  • Alaska’s Careline: 1-877-266-4357 (HELP)
  • AK First Responders Relief Line: 844-985-8275 
  • JAMHI Health and Wellness: 907-463-3303
  • Bartlett Regional Hospital: 907-796-8900
  • 24/7 SEARHC Care Line: 1-877-294-0074

Mental health and the pandemic

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