Fairbanks experiencing behavioral health crisis according to hospital behavioral health director

The Behavioral Health Unit at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. According to the director of the unit, Fairbanks is experiencing a behavioral health crisis. (John Dougherty/KTVF)

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) Behavioral health issues are challenging communities across the country, but according to the director of behavioral health at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital (FMH), in Fairbanks and across the state it is a crisis.

Dr. Vanessa Venezia said that because of problems faced by the Alaska Psychiatric Institute (API) in Anchorage, Fairbanks’ already bad situation has gotten worse.

“We currently don’t have enough in-patient behavioral health beds across the state,” Dr. Venezia said. “Things were bad, but they were not the crisis they are today, and in my opinion what changed 18 months ago was API was experiencing numerous staffing issues.”

On top of staffing issues, API has also faced federal and state scrutiny, at one point almost losing their ability to participate in Medicaid. Because of these problems, over half of the 80 beds at the facility have been unable for use. As a result, patients from Anchorage have been sent to Fairbanks and Juneau to receive care.

“As we began to experience the back-flow of patients out of Anchorage and the MAT-SU Valley into Fairbanks, we then struggled to meet our own community catchment area need,” Dr. Venezia said.

She added, “While our system was designed as a community hospital to meet our community needs, we have shouldered a bigger burden to carry more of the state need.” And she added that the hospital wasn’t designed for that.

The behavioral health unit at FMH only has 20 beds -- and according to Dr. Venezia, most of the time they are all full. Because of this she said that even though they would like to be able to admit people straight to the behavioral health unit, many times they can’t -- and when that happens they have to give those people beds in the emergency room.

The behavioral health problems in Fairbanks have been creating problems for the community. Fairbanks Mayor Jim Matherly said that the city sees the effects of behavioral health in many areas.

“It is a crisis mode, I would agree. In the state and here locally you see it in different forms, whether people are laying down in various locations in town... and then of course it affects to tourist industry a little bit,” Matherly said.

Matherly said drugs, alcohol and mental health problems are creating many of the issues. However, he said they are working to combat the problems and get people help.

Dr. Venezia said that it is important to recognize the problem to begin fixing it.

“If you couldn’t get your cough treated until you had pneumonia, and had to be hospitalized, people would be up in arms -- but because this is a behavioral health condition, and our patients are vulnerable and don’t advocate well for themselves, we have to advocate for them,” Dr. Venezia said.

We will continue coverage of this issue, the problems they cause and things that are being done to address them in future articles.

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