An almost empty critical care unit at Bartlett Hospital on April 7, 2020, in Juneau, Alaska. a (Rashah McChesney / KTOO)
In 2020, Bartlett Regional Hospital prepared a wave of COVID-19 patients. Instead, he had an increased mental health crisis.
Bartlett’s behavioral health staff relates the increase in patients to the spring break of 2020. Students left the classroom for vacations and returned to a whole new reality. COVID-19 cases were increasing statewide and remote learning suddenly replaced school day routines.
“We started to see children and families and adults coming in struggling with the immediate changes we took on as a community,” said Bradley Grigg, who heads the regional hospital’s behavioral health arm.
He said these social restrictions cause spikes in anxiety, depression, substance use and self-harm, for students, parents and virtually everyone experiencing the disruption of the pandemic.
Bradley Grigg in his office on April 15, 2021. (Claire Stremple / KTOO)
Since last March, Grigg said visits to patients have doubled to a thousand a month. And of these, he said more than 100 go to the emergency room. Four people in crisis are resolved every day in Juneau.
“I hope no one cares about what we’re seeing,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then. And it’s creating more havoc; yes, COVID has created inconveniences for us. This is wreaking havoc. “
Juneau is not an atypical value. Kristina Weltzin is a mental health clinician in the state health department.
“In all of our communities, the information we get is that, as you know, behavioral health issues have increased dramatically,” Weltzin said.
In a state survey, most adults reported that their mental health has worsened over the past year. More than half of parents reported that their child was more anxious or sad than usual.
Grigg said over the past year he has hired about 35 mental health staff to keep up with demand. It now manages a staff of 150 people. CARES money helped fund new positions, but Grigg said they will be permanent roles that reflect a new normalcy in Bartlett’s behavioral health program.
“When people are in crisis, even if it’s just outpatient, we don’t want to make it a waiting list,” he said.
Even with an increase in staff, there is still a waiting list for non-emergency patients.
The hospital launched a Crisis Intervention Services team this spring, which provides follow-up support to patients who have been discharged from the emergency department. The team is available for home visits seven days a week, working with patients until they are stable.
Grigg was thrilled when he talked about the toll he has seen spoiled by children. Prior to COVID-19, children were only about one-third of the patients in the behavioral health department. Children now make up the majority of the hospital’s behavioral health patients and a quarter of the department’s emergency traffic.
Suicide attempts recorded at the hospital have quadrupled among adolescents. For children 13 years of age or younger, the hospital recorded a suicide attempt in 2019. By 2020, there were seven.
“The devastation we’re seeing with children, with families, when they can’t survive this because their anxiety, their depression or their substance use are so out of control … It’s an effect that unless you see every day, you don’t know how much it has infiltrated our community, ”Grigg said.
Public restrictions have decreased and more than 70% of Juneau’s eligible population has had the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine. But Grigg said the patient’s load has not diminished, but only leveled.
“It’s relentless,” he said. “It doesn’t stop.”
If you or someone you know has trouble committing suicide or needs attention, help is available:
- Alaska Careline: 1-877-266-4357 (HELP)
- First responder helpline AK: 844-985-8275
- JAMHI Health and Wellness: 907-463-3303
- Bartlett Regional Hospital: 907-796-8900
How has the pandemic affected your mental health? Email your story with Claire Stremple of KTOO to Claire@ktoo.org. All correspondence will be kept confidential unless there is explicit permission to publish it.