A new residential mental health treatment center will open in late fall in Fairbanks, the first of its kind in the area.
“We have the hospital, and then we have an outpatient care — health and community counseling centers — but there’s nothing in between,” said Sarah Koogle, adult clinical director at Alaska Behavioral Health. “This residential center is going to help bridge the gap in our community on mental health care.”
Koogle said that the hospital accepts people who are in acute mental health crisis and discharges them when they feel better but still might need “that extra support.”
“When somebody is coming out of a hospital and has been in there for two weeks or several days, that usually means they have a lot of stuff going on in their life,” Koogle said.
The new treatment center — planned to open in November on Hilton Avenue near Regal Goldstream & IMAX movie theater — will admit adults who are experiencing a serious mental illness. Each client will have a personalized plan of care based on their needs, which could include medication administration, individual and group therapy, and skill development, said Christine Alvarez, chief clinical officer of adult services at Alaska Behavioral Health.
“So really, [our client is] someone who isn’t able to be maintained in the community because their health is at risk and they haven’t been responsive to outpatient treatment,”Alvarez said.
For example, if a person has been “kicked out of their place more often because of inappropriate social interaction,” the staff at the new center might help them “build life and social skills to restore functioning and help them understand how to regulate emotions and anger.”
The center will accept people up to 90 days, “but it could be possible that someone could stay there longer or much less than that,” Alvarez said. Every 90 days, the staff would submit for a service authorization to justify medical necessity.
After going through treatment, the clients would be able to transition to an assisted living home and come to the clinic for care or get an apartment and start using outpatient services.
“This is going to be a really, really important thing specifically for the Fairbanks community,” Alvarez said.
Before last spring, Alaska had a service called Recipient Support Services provided to people who had a mental health diagnosis, violent hallucinations or history of violence, Alvarez explained. The team monitored clients in the assisted living homes so that they didn’t harm themselves or someone else, while still staying in the community. Now that the program went away, Fairbanks residents need to go to Anchorage or even other states to receive higher level of care outside of their community.
Having the treatment center in Fairbanks will help people build necessary support locally so that when they do discharge, they can stay in a community that they’ve been involved with.
While Fairbanks was forecasted to need about 35 beds, the center will have about 10 for now.
“We wanted to kind of open it slowly and then see how the community responds,” Alvarez said.
To help the center open its doors, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority has awarded $300,000 to Alaska Behavioral Health at the end of last month. The Trust is a state corporation that supports organizations serving Alaskans with mental illness, intellectual and developmental disabilities and substance use disorders.
The award from the Trust will help the center with the startup costs, such as hiring employees, said Steve Williams, chief operating officer at the Trust.
So far the plan is to have one clinician at the center at all times and 10 to 15 mental health technicians who will doing the daily activities with the clients, Koogle said.
“We also want to make sure we have somebody there for when a client has successfully been through the program and is now ready to be integrated into the community,” Koogle said. “We want to make sure that we have a really solid discharge plan, and that we set them up for success once they leave.”
Despite local and national staffing shortages, the center started to get a steady flow of applicants as soon as they started advertising.
“I think one of the reasons why there is interest in this is because everybody who is in this field — the mental health or behavioral health in Fairbanks — knows that this is such a crucial piece that the community has needed,” Koogle said.