"The Trust is helping . . . me be me"
Whether we realize it or not, most of us know someone who is a beneficiary of the Alaska Mental Health Trust. The Trust serves Alaskans who experience mental illness, developmental disabilities, chronic alcohol or drug addiction, Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia, and traumatic brain injuries. They are our children, parents, siblings, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Beneficiaries live in every corner of Alaska and come from all walks of life.
The Trust is committed to raising awareness about our beneficiaries – with a particular focus on the stigma many face every day. Stigma may be hard to see but, for Trust beneficiaries, stigma or stereotypes can get in the way of a job, or housing, or necessary services. It can also prevent people from seeking the help and support they need.
We’ve been meeting with beneficiaries across the state to hear their stories about how mental health stigma continues to impact their lives. Click below to hear from Kristin, Skylair, and Bobby, Trust beneficiaries who have battled stigma.
Skylair loves to cook and enjoys making others happy with a smile or kind word. Even though most people wouldn’t know it, Skylair experiences mental illness and other intellectual disabilities that make it harder for him to learn new things and interact with others. “I get told normally like you don't look like you have disabilities, you’re fine.”
Skylair explained that it has taken encouragement, counseling, and time to overcome his social anxiety and PTSD. Through a direct service provider and other services made possible by Trust funding, Skylair received help with his resume, assistance with reaching out to potential employers, and built a network of supports. “Most of the people I got to know through Frontier Community Services became pretty close friends to me. They remember where I started and now, I’m doing a lot better about opening up about things I used to hide from.”
Even though Skylair has experienced stigma because of his disabilities he has come a long way. Building his network of supports has taught Skylair a lot about the importance of people in his life. “Over the years I’ve realized I have people that love and care for me. We’re meant to be there for each other no matter what. You can deal with a lot of things with help and by hanging out with the right people.”
Bobby is an active member of his community, serving on boards and councils that are leaders in the training, advisory, and advocacy space for beneficiaries who experience addiction, as well as who are coming out of incarceration. As a dedicated champion for criminal justice reentrants, part of what makes Bobby such a powerful ally and advocate is his own experience as a reentrant and someone in recovery from addiction. “In the beginning of my recovery I was trying to beat the odds, but today I’m working with others to change the odds.”
Battling barriers to employment, housing, and community supports because of the stigma he faced after his release from incarceration, Bobby was determined to be a part of the change for other reentrants and those in recovery. “When you first get out of prison or you’re getting out of treatment, you have no place to go. You’re starting out with nothing.”
Empowered by his lived experience, Bobby is now an addiction counselor with Fairbanks Native Association and serves on the Fairbanks Reentry Coalition, Fairbanks Diversity Council, and Peer Support Advisory Board, all of which enable him to support his community and mentor people going through the same challenges he once faced. He is also a member of the Alaska Mental Health Board and regularly volunteers with local nonprofits that support those experiencing homeless, mental illness, and addiction. “The things that I’m doing today makes it worth it.”
Trust research conducted in spring 2021 indicates that significant stigma remains attached to Trust beneficiaries. Throughout the survey, respondents expressed disproportionate negative sentiments toward Alaskans experiencing mental illness, substance misuse, and other challenges like Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia. These responses correlated to a decreased willingness among respondents to socialize with beneficiaries, welcome them to their family, or trust them in the workplace.
Trust beneficiaries experience stigma because of a lack of knowledge and understanding which can foster negative attitudes, language, and behaviors towards them. Not only can this gap in understanding cause barriers to employment, negatively impact relationships, and perpetuate stigma, it also contributes to reduced opportunities for recovery and prevents beneficiaries from seeking services that they need.
There is not just one specific type of stigma. It exists in a variety of forms and places and can also be self-imposed. Public, self, and institutional stigma create negative impacts that extend past the stigmatized individual to their families, friends, and support systems. The Trust is working to mitigate the direct and indirect harmful impacts of stigma. We hope you will join us in those efforts.
The Trust is committed to educating the public and decision makers about beneficiary needs and acting as advocates for equitable treatment. For 25 years, the Trust has worked with partners across the state to improve the lives of beneficiaries and to serve as a catalyst for change in Alaska’s mental health continuum of care. Each year, the Trust grants around $25 million to nonprofits, state agencies, Tribal organizations, local governments, and other partners for projects that promote long-term change and improve the circumstances of those we serve.
Meet our Beneficiaries
Kristin’s successful journey to recovery from addiction has taken her through both highs and lows. After starting to use substances at 14 years old, Kristin’s use progressed and intensified until she was 35, and found herself in an abusive relationship. “In my teen years, it was a freedom from all of the stress of life of that time. I didn't consider it too serious until my dad got sick and I started medicating with some of his prescription painkillers and then that took hold pretty hard.”
For a period, Kristin was still able to function to some degree but, as her addiction worsened, the consequences of her use began to grow too intense to ignore. “I just didn't matter anymore. I didn't really care to sustain the life. I didn't want to kill myself, but I didn't really want to live, and I didn't have a way out.”
Kristin’s way out came in the form of services she received after reaching out to a domestic violence crisis line. She was introduced to case managers at SeaView Community Services, a Trust partner, who were able to help get her back on her feet and on the road to recovery. “They understood things. They were able to break it down and explain it in a way that gave me some understanding and perspective, and I felt like I wasn't alone. From there I was set up with a regular therapist, a trauma therapist, and then they told me about the recovery house that was just opening.”
The recovery housing that Kristin benefitted from was supported by grant funding from the Trust and was a project focused on making community-based mental health and addiction services more accessible in Seward. “Having the availability of a local program is so important. If I didn't have SeaView’s recovery services available in this town, I don't know that I would have gotten sober.”
Today, Kristin is a mentor to other individuals who struggle with addiction and a small business owner. Through her businesses, Seward Space Savers and Gypsea Treasure Trunk, she is able to provide employment to community members who are where she once was: struggling to get back on their feet in recovery. “I am now able to employ other people in the recovery house that need an opportunity. Something that was humanizing, you know, because addiction doesn't discriminate.”
Originally from the East Coast and now living on the Kenai Peninsula, Bob really began to notice that he might be different from his peers in college. “I used to wonder sometimes, how do people manage to get these great grades? Pretty much every semester I'd have about two weeks where I really couldn't leave my room.”
Suffering from depression from the time he was 12 years old, Bob shared that it took years to get a diagnosis, and even then, life continued to be a rollercoaster. “I guess it was good at first to feel like I was getting some sort of a handle on what was going on. But over that first three years of treatment, I got drastically worse, like much, much worse.”
For Bob, his journey with mental health has evolved as he has worked hard to find a balance with his bipolar disorder. He explained what it’s like to live with mental illness, describing it as “seeing life from a whole bunch of different energy states,” creating a ripple effect in his life and impacting his relationships with his family and his ability to find secure employment.
Connecting with a local Trust grantee organization in Homer, Bob found support through their mental health services and, as he improved, he was able to explore employment supports. Bob is now working to become a peer support specialist, which assists other Trust beneficiaries who may be struggling with similar mental health experiences. Now focused on helping others as a part of his journey, Bob shared this reminder with us: “Your mental health problem, your addiction problem, it’s not something you're choosing. It's something happening to you. And that stigma and the way people look at you, that's another thing that's happening to you. It's not your fault.”
An outgoing person who loves nature and doing outdoor activities, Charlotte moved from Ketchikan and now lives in Seward. When Charlotte’s son was just a year old, she realized she might be struggling with mental health issues when she started hearing voices. Seeking help, Charlotte was diagnosed with schizophrenia. “It was scary. I thought I wouldn’t be able to take care of my son. I thought that I wouldn't be able to do the things that normal people need to do.”
Luckily, Charlotte was connected with SeaView Community Services, a Trust partner that offers mental and behavioral health services and supports in Seward. Through SeaView, Charlotte was encouraged to work on small, everyday tasks that supported not only her well-being but her son’s growth as well. She was able to find parenting support that helped keep her son in her home and got engaged with activities that got her out of the house and interacting in her community. “I was able to maintain healthy living, a healthy life, and raise my baby as well.” She not only was able to learn the importance of everyday tasks through her new normal, but also how to navigate a sometimes-scary diagnosis with integral community supports.
Now that her son is grown and off to college, Charlotte is still connected with her local service providers who made such an impact on her and her son’s life. “I've been with this program so long, me and my son, we say y'all are our family. We have a SeaView family.”
Born in Seattle and growing up in Nikiski, Michelle lights up when she talks about her cats and Frontier Community Services. Involved with Frontier since she was 18 years old, Michelle can rattle off a myriad of services, from case management to direct services providers to mental health supports, that her fellow beneficiaries can benefit from. She’s like an advocate, welcome wagon, and one of the longest-served beneficiaries at Frontier. “It’s like one big team,” Michelle said about the Trust-funded organization.
Experiencing intellectual and developmental disabilities, Michelle shared about the stigma that has impacted her, most frequently through the way other people treat her. “People treat people who have disabilities like children. We’re not children. We’re adults. “
Through Frontier, Michelle has become more independent and has been able to live a life that makes her happy. When asked about what she might want people to know about her, she beamed, “That I have changed a lot because of the services that I get now. They treat me like an adult, and I feel like I act like an adult.”
Anthony Messier, beneficiary
Anthony is from Anchorage, AK. When he was 20 years-old, he received a traumatic brain injury (TBI) after falling nearly 25 feet while installing gutters.
Due to his injury, Anthony has trouble paying attention, experiences some speech issues and gets distracted easily. Anthony admits that he is treated differently due to his TBI but he benefitted from Trust supported community based programs and services, such as support groups. According to Anthony, these services helped him “learn how to do everything correctly again.”
Anthony enjoys that he gets to spend a lot of time with his family and feels that community-based supports are especially important in Alaska.
“Alaska has the most TBI incidents per capita. We need more TBI support groups and more people that are educated about the therapies.”