‘What we’ve wanted to have for so long’

For Alaskans whose lives are unraveled because of drug or alcohol misuse, the pandemic only worsened the stresses — and posed special challenges for treatment. With everyone urged to stay home and away from other people, how could treatment centers safely keep their doors open?

That was the question a state official posed in May 2020 to Philip Licht, executive director of Wasilla-based Set Free Alaska, a faith-based nonprofit that uses a mind-body-spirit approach to recovery. The State of Alaska has spent years building residential treatment capacity. The pandemic could have destroyed it all.

Licht had an idea. Restaurants were hurting and tourism was nearly shut down, so why not use what was going unused to help individuals quarantine? They could rest in a hotel room, enjoy delivered meals, receive initial assessments and, after two weeks, safely enter residential treatment. Two days after being asked to propose a strategy, Licht’s team had not only drafted a full proposal, but initial state funding was approved. “I’ll never again say government moves slow,” Licht joked.

A year into the pandemic, more than 100 people had been quarantined through the program, and 80% made it to the next level of care such as sober housing or residential treatment in a group facility. Several other Southcentral Alaska providers relied on the quarantine system, too. Normally, about half the people referred to residential care end up following through. Many disappear while waiting. Access to a safe, welcoming place right away is key.

“We hope that this continues forever,” Licht said. Set Free is looking at building a center to stabilize and screen those ready for help — “what we’ve wanted to have for so long.”

Other new strategies may carry forward too. Pre-pandemic, telehealth accounted for about 10% of Set Free’s outpatient counseling and 90% was in person. In one intense week, those numbers flipped. Most staff still were in the office, but clients showed up in a grid on the screen. A study in Massachusetts found that participation in treatment drops for clients who live just a mile away and plummets for those farther out. Not everyone has gas money or a vehicle. A DUI means a suspended driver’s license. With telehealth, transportation is not an issue.

Post-pandemic, group counseling might be structured with convenient Zoom sessions some days and in-person meetings with benefits of social interactions the rest, Licht said. Maybe it goes further. Many Alaska communities lack enough mental health clinicians. If eased rules on in-state licensure remain, a professional based in the Lower 48 could counsel clients. In small villages, behavioral health aides could add local support.

In a year that shut down so much, Set Free added staff, nearly doubled the number of children being counseled, expanded treatment in Alaska prisons and opened a residential treatment center in Homer. It’s the first in Alaska for men with children.

“Let’s put out the fires as we need to, but let’s look for the opportunities too,” Licht says.