FAIRBANKS — Alaska has come a long way in reducing underage drinking in the past two decades. Self-reported numbers have declined, as have referrals into the juvenile justice system.

Experts in the state have positive things to say about various methods of prevention, intervention and treatment going on throughout the state, but they say the issue is far from settled. Those same experts can point to numerous areas where improvements can be made.

Binge drinking rates among adults in Alaska are not as encouraging as those among young people, and the state is still a leader in several negative categories that have been shown to lead to problem drinking behaviors. Nonetheless, the low rate of adolescent drinking in Alaska combined with its continued downward trend serve as a promising sign for the future of the 49th state.

Prevention

• What is going well in Alaska?

The frequency of underage drinking in Alaska has been steadily declining since the 1990s. When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first began reporting self-reported data, Alaska teens were drinking more than the national average.

As of 2013, those numbers have fallen faster than the nation, moving Alaska’s teen drinking rates into the bottom three.

There’s no one clear thing on which to pin such significant gains, but many people who work with youths in the Alaska attribute much of those gains to changes in treatment methods and to improvements in positive community norms.

• What needs improvement?

There is still plenty of room for improvement when it comes to underage drinking among 18- to 20-year-olds. Numbers from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration show that more than half of 20-year-olds self-report that they drank in the past month.

For those still in grade school, there’s room for more use of positive community norms to teach young students it’s normal and healthy to abstain from alcohol. 

Intervention

• What is going well in Alaska?

Many communities in Alaska, specifically in rural areas, have been performing restorative justice interventions to great success. The use of circles in many Alaska Native communities have proven successful at helping start the healing process for victims and perpetrators.

“It gets rid of all the rumors, gets rid of all the gossip and kind of puts everything out in front of everybody,” said University of Alaska Fairbanks Tribal Management Professor Kevin Illingworth.

Circles aren’t a copout from punishment but rather an alternative punitive agreement that gives the perpetrator a path to success rather than just a sentence to dwell on their crime in confinement.

• What needs improvement?

Circles may not be as effective in urban areas as they are in rural communities, but cities could benefit from the implementation of similar restorative justice practices. The idea is catching on but has yet to fully permeate the country’s traditional penal structure.

In middle and high schools, the existence of substance abuse counselors has been shown to help students. The Fairbanks North Star Borough School District uses such positions in its high schools, but most school districts in the state don’t.

“We are improving on the high-risk students. More are graduating than before,” said Ann Piek, a counselor at Lathrop High School. “This does work to have as much contact with students as possible.”

With budgets likely to be cut once again this year by the Alaska Legislature, the probability of adding more substance abuse counselors to schools appears low. 

Treatment

• What is going well in Alaska?

In Alaska’s juvenile justice system, instances of drug and alcohol offenses have been declining at least as far back as 2003. Last year, the number of adolescents whose worst offense was drug- or alcohol-related was nearly half as high as it was in 2003. The juvenile justice system has begun including evidence-based treatment programs in addition to 12-step programs.

• What needs improvement?

Two key hurdles to treatment remain for many Alaska’s adolescents — location and cost. 

According to Marjorie Risner with Family Centered Services in Fairbanks, the expansion of Medicaid in Alaska has already begun to make a difference in this area, but it has not fully closed the cost gap.

Many treatment centers don’t accept Medicaid because of administrative difficulties and costs, according to Risner. 

Alaska’s rural residents still don’t have access to treatment programs. According to Gunnar Ebbesson, the clinical director of Turning Point Counseling Services in Fairbanks, the transition back to rural life after treatment can be hard for many people dealing with substance abuse disorders.

In addition, many treatment facilities in Alaska refer patients out for behavioral health treatment. It can be difficult and expensive to include behavioral health clinicians in a substance abuse treatment facility, but the payoff can be worth it. Studies suggest locating both a patient’s behavioral health and substance abuse counselors in the same facility was linked to better outcomes than when patients were referred to another facility for part of their treatment. 

Reporting for the Daily News-Miner’s expanded coverage of efforts to reduce alcohol abuse in Alaska is supported financially by the Recover Alaska Media Project fund at the Alaska Community Foundation. Contributors to the fund are the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Mat-Su Health Foundation, Southcentral Foundation, Rasmuson Foundation, Providence Health & Services Alaska, and Doyon, Limited. The News-Miner has sole responsibility for the selection and execution of the stories produced for this project. Contact staff writer Weston Morrow at 459-7520. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMschools.

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