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Group pushing fix for 'broken' Interior Alaska mental-health system

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Posted: Tuesday, November 26, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 10:34 am, Wed Nov 27, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Several Interior social-service organizations believe it’s time to overhaul the area’s patchwork mental-health network and are planning a meeting next month to push for a more cohesive system.

Members of the Community Action Planning group — a collection of about two dozen local nonprofit organizations — decided last week to pursue the meeting. The Dec. 11 forum is, in part, a response to the scarce housing resources available for mentally ill patients in Fairbanks this winter.

The community meeting is viewed as a place where the public — particularly elected officials — can get a better sense of where the fragmented system is failing to deliver. Last year more than 1,000 people in the Interior received mental-health services.

“The forum, we hope, is lots of people and lots of loud voices talking about what’s missing and how we need to go forward,” said Anna Nelson, executive director of the Interior AIDS Association and CAP chairwoman.

Mental health advocates say big gaps in the local care system have emerged since the September bankruptcy and closure of Fairbanks Community Behavioral Health Center. The organization that stepped into that void, Fairbanks Community Mental Health Service, is only offering services that generate revenue for the program.

It’s caused some offerings, such as a daytime drop-in center and vocational programs, to vanish. Other issues, including the growing scarcity of local housing for mentally ill clients, have been compounded by the closure.

“People are just home all day, when before they had a place to go,” said Jeannette Grasto, president of NAMI of Fairbanks, a local mental health advocacy group. “I think this is getting to the point as a community where we need to do something.”

CAP members say the existing group of social-service networks doesn’t have the ability to step into that void. They hope bringing legislators and other officials into the conversation will add urgency to the issue.

Gene Redden, a retiree who previously worked in the mental health field, said he hand-delivered invitations to every local elected official Monday morning.

“We have to get players to the table to make things happen,” Redden said.

Short-term efforts to solve those problems have stalled.

Redden said he’s still working to establish a location for a daytime drop-in program. Downtown Care, the only assisted-living facility in the area for mentally ill clients, downsized on Monday after a neighbor’s newly built fence blocked windows that could be used as emergency escape routes.

With some services on the decline in Fairbanks, clients are being forced to move elsewhere, Grasto said. In a letter last week to the Alaska Division of Behavioral Health, she described the local mental-health system as “broken” and needing repair. 

“It’s a tragedy,” she said. “We’re sending them to Anchorage, and they don’t come back.”

The community forum is planned for 6 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly chambers.

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMbusiness.

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