Since January, Southeast Alaska’s largest hospital has quietly rolled out a new program to close a big gap in behavioral health services for minors.
So far, 13 young people in the midst of a crisis — like a suicide attempt — have been able to receive care. It’s addressing a growing need so patients can stabilize a little closer to home.
Bradley Grigg used to work at the emergency department at Bartlett Regional Hospital, and he saw dozens of patients come through the door.
But he wasn’t treating them for an injury, like a broken leg. He did mental health assessments when parents would come in with their child asking for help.
“My frustration in working in those scenarios was talking with the family, building a quick rapport with the family … only to find out, we can’t help you here,” he said.
The hospital does have in-patient mental health services for adults.
But up until recently, there was nowhere in the region for a minor to stay after a mental health crisis, stabilize, see a psychiatrist and receive ongoing care. The closest place in Alaska was Anchorage.
Grigg says behavioral health specialists in the community recognized it was a problem. Children would sometimes be separated from their parents, which can delay the healing process for everyone.
“Right now, we’re really stuck,” Grigg said. “When a family comes in here, they usually come in here at the time when they cannot handle it anymore.”
That was Erik and Melissa McCormick’s experience with their oldest son.
“Speier Malone McCormick was his full name,” Melissa McCormick said.
The McCormicks remember Speier as an inquisitive kid who enjoyed going on hikes with the family. He played guitar and wrote his own songs. His music tastes were eclectic. He liked Metallica and the Beatles.“Speier Malone McCormick was his full name,” Melissa McCormick said.
“He really liked Elton John,” Erik McCormick said.
But the McCormicks became increasingly concerned about Speier’s behavior around the time he was in 6th grade.
He was a pitcher on a junior league baseball team.
“He would come home and he would be very upset that they lost the game,” Melissa McCormick said. “And we we would explain to him, it’s just a game. But he would take it really hard. He would go hit his head against the wall. ‘I didn’t pitch well enough.’”
Erik McCormick says they thought he was just being a perfectionist.
“He just to needs to learn,” he said. “But we probably underestimated all that was going on in his brain. We didn’t know.”
Speier was later diagnosed with bipolar and borderline personality disorders: treatable mental health conditions.
But at 15, he tried to kill himself. That’s when the McCormicks first tried to navigate a confusing mental health system which made it nearly impossible to keep their son close to home.
Melissa says after Speier was taken to the emergency room in Juneau, “it was like boom, boom, boom and he was gone.”
Speier was flown to a hospital in Anchorage outfitted to help suicidal teens. Then, he was admitted to a youth mental health treatment facility in Palmer for about six months. His parents were able to visit him there and Speier eventually returned home.
When he was 16, the family went through it all over again — after another suicide attempt.
Melissa says in both instances, she would’ve liked to slow down and reflect on the best options for Speier and the family.
“You know, worked on a plan together,” Melissa McCormick said. “Instead of me on the internet at 3 o’clock in the morning trying to figure out what am I going to do with my son? And how am I going to get him out of town, and how am I going to explain this to his siblings?”
The McCormicks felt like they’d exhausted all the mental health services available. So Speier was sent to another treatment program in the Lower 48 while most of the family remained in Alaska.
A little over a year ago, Speier died by suicide.
Bradley Grigg, the counselor who did mental health assessments at the hospital, didn’t treat Speier. But he did know him.
“I was a baseball coach. It’s a small community,” Grigg said.
Grigg is now the Chief Behavioral Health Officer at Bartlett, which is doing things differently than how it’s been done in the past, due to a $2 million dollar grant from the state.
For instance, when a family arrives with a child experiencing a mental health crisis, they aren’t immediately confronted with a flight to Anchorage. Instead, they can receive care at Bartlett’s new youth stabilization room.
Grigg points out the safety features which have been adapted to minimize self-harm.
But it’s more than the redesign of one room. Next year, Bartlett is constructing an entire building that can serve up to four adults and four kids, which they hope to be able to flex based on need.
Grigg says it’s a chance to hit pause for up to week or longer. Patients can meet with a psychiatrist and come up with a treatment plan.
“And as often as possible with the family,” Grigg said. “Because don’t view this as, ‘Oh, we have a kid here who’s having a crisis.’ We view it as a family crisis.”
Grigg acknowledges there’s still more work to be done to address the huge need for more mental health services in Alaska.
But for now, he’s able to tell families with kids something he couldn’t before: Yes, we can help you here.
If you or someone you know needs help, call Careline at 1-877-266-HELP (4357), a 24/7 Alaska resource that can provide support, information, and local resources.