Posted By Bill Hogan, Senior Fellow at Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority
The “Recover Alaska” Substance Abuse Initiative funded by Rasmuson Foundation, Mat-Su Health Foundation, and Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority began in 2009. At that time, I joined the working group comprised of statewide leaders and community stakeholders while in my role as Commissioner of Health and Social Services. I have since transitioned into the position of Senior Fellow at the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, with the responsibility of moving this initiative forward. The goal of Recover Alaska is to “reduce the negative impacts of alcohol and drug abuse in Alaska.” The focus has been on developing ways to prevent substance abuse – a contributing factor in suicides, domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and juvenile delinquency – and improve treatment services for Alaskans experiencing alcohol and drug problems.
My work in the field of behavioral health began over 35 years ago in various community-based nonprofit organizations both within and outside of Alaska. Prior to my term as Commissioner, I was the first state director of the Division of Behavioral Health. I’ve experienced firsthand, as a clinician, the devastating impact alcohol and drugs have on families and communities. As a policy maker I understand we have to do things differently in Alaska to produce different results. Recover Alaska is a great opportunity to be innovative in proposing and implementing “unique” solutions to these problems.
We have chosen to describe our work with the name “Recover Alaska” because it is a label that is solution-focused rather than problem-centered. It suggests not only the process of individuals recovering from substance abuse, but also recovering, reclaiming and restoring what’s best about Alaska’s families and communities.
One of the ideas generated during our group discussions is to look closely at other broad-based public health initiatives, such as the tobacco cessation movement, for information about lessons learned. We had the opportunity a few weeks ago to visit with Dr. Steven Schroeder, the current director of the University of California at San Francisco, Department of Medicine’s Smoking Cessation Leadership Center when he was in Alaska to deliver remarks at the annual Alaska Tobacco Summit sponsored by the Alaska Tobacco Control Alliance. Dr. Schroeder was president and member of the board of trustees of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) from 1990 to 1999 and president and CEO of RWJF from 1999 to 2002, a period during which that foundation made significant investments in the prevention of drug and alcohol abuse.
During our discussion, Dr. Schroeder offered valuable ideas, suggestions and insights on prevention strategies that were successful as well as those that were less so and what contributed to success or a lack thereof. He indicated for instance that selecting a harm reduction strategy that has a significant social impact on the community can be very effective. In the early years of the tobacco cessation movement, harm reduction strategies related to second hand smoke were instrumental in delivering a message to smokers and non-smokers alike, thereby educating everyone about the dangers of tobacco use. One example of how that might translate to substance abuse was the idea of strategies that are focused on reducing the incidence of vehicle accidents (auto, snow machines, four wheelers, boats) in which alcohol and drugs are a contributing factor. Over 18,500 Alaskans were involved in alcohol related vehicle accidents in 2007.
By listening to experts such as Dr. Schroeder, the Recover Alaska team can continue to explore options for how funders like Rasmuson Foundation can help turn the tide on substance abuse in Alaska. We also invite your comments and suggestions.