Juneau SEARHC opens its doors to non-Natives seeking mental health services

Pyper Powell straightens a picture at SEARHC’s new behavioral health location. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Pyper Powell straightens a picture at SEARHC’s new behavioral health location. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

About 15 new patients are scheduled for behavioral health services at a tribal health consortium in Southeast Alaska. SEARHC recently its practice in Juneau to offer services to non-Native people.

It’s estimated that more than 4,700 people in Juneau suffer from a mental health condition. But if you’re seeking counseling from a private practice, you might have to wait.

“Services in our community are limited and access to them is limited. We just thought it was time to open our doors and make ourselves available to others,” says Pyper Powell, a behavioral health clinician at SEARHC.

She says she’s heard of patients being waitlisted up to a month or longer. So when the behavioral health division moved into a larger building in Juneau, it seemed like the perfect time to expand. Before, the service was only available to Alaska Natives and American Indians.

“And now we’re able to serve anybody that wants to walk through the door.”

That includes non-Natives with health insurance, Medicare and Medicaid coverage. She says they’re working on a sliding scale option for people without insurance. SEARHC is the tribal health care organization serving Alaska Natives in Southeast. It’s funded with federal dollars from the Indian Health Service and grants.

The organization has seen both Native and non-Native people in Sitka for decades.

“We know that it can work,” she says. “We know that it does work and that is a great support for the community.”

Powell hopes, with more people in Juneau, they will be able to expand group therapy.

“You have a chance to work out your problems in a safe confidential environment with people who maybe remind you of somebody and can give you great feedback rather than jumping in full bore,” she says.

Groups include mental health support and chemical dependency. Some offer art therapy or mindfulness exercises. There’s one for grief management that uses Tlingit storytelling and drumming.

SEARHC’s vice president, Leatha Merculieff, says it’s mutually beneficial to include non-Natives. She’s Aleut from St. Paul Island.

“From an Alaska Native perspective, any type of expansion, it’s great for us as Alaska Native people because it adds additional resources to our services. That’s how we expand,” she says.

SEARHC will also accept patients for one-on-one counseling, but another community behavioral health provider says there’s no need. They already provide similar services without a wait.

“I don’t think we fully realized that there is a perception that so many people didn’t have immediate access to behavioral health services,” says Pamela Watts, the executive director at the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health.

JAMHI provides counseling, among other services, and offers a sliding scale policy for its uninsured clients. Watts says SEARHC is “duplicating” what’s already available.

“When duplication occurs that can draw resources away or clientele away from organizations that are well established,” she says.

SEARHC’s revenue is 20 times larger than JAMHI’s. But something both providers agree on is the lack of psychiatric care in Juneau — particularly for kids. Pyper Powell says that’s one thing SEARHC’s new patients may not receive right away. Alaska Native children already have about a four month wait for that.

“One of the things that we need to make sure that we do is honor the beneficiaries, the Alaska Natives, who would like to receive service as priority when there is a waitlist,” she says.

Powell says there are no immediate plans to hire more staff. SEARHC will reassess in the next few months.