One Year Later: The mental health recovery

 The Skilja family, fleeing their home during the earthquake (photo courtesy Jennifer Skilja)
The Skilja family, fleeing their home during the earthquake (photo courtesy Jennifer Skilja) (KTUU)
Published: Nov. 10, 2019 at 9:03 PM AKST
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The earthquake that struck on Nov. 30, 2018 did much more than crack roadways and fracture foundations of buildings. The quake also shattered the sense of well-being for thousands of Alaskans and created wide-spread anxiety.

Toni and Jennifer Skilja were getting ready to start their day when the quake hit. Toni was downstairs in their Rogers Park home, getting breakfast for their young daughter, Sophia. Jennifer was upstairs putting on make-up in the bathroom.

You may have seen what happened to the Skilja family if you saw the Channel 2 News coverage of the quake. Their home security cameras caught what happened inside their house on video: Toni grabbing Sophia from her chair and dashing to the front door, with Jennifer rushing outside in her bare feet in the snow to join them.

“I was terrified because I thought the house was going to collapse on me ... so I just started sprinting.” Jennifer said in a recent interview with KTUU.

"When I came back inside, it was like a disaster... like somebody just came in and vandalized the house,” Toni said.

Judy Lavigne, a long-time volunteer at Providence Hospital in Anchorage, was helping to set up the hospital's arts & crafts show in the lobby when the quake hit.

"We just went to this wall and we were just kinda standing here because at that time we were watching the glass panels shake...we were watching the windows up above shake... we could see the walls shake,” Judy said, as she described what happened in the hospital's main atrium. “And it just got to a point where I was just praying because it got scary because this whole platform was just going sideways.”

In the days and weeks following the November quake, Judy noticed a lot of people were struggling with their emotions, especially as the aftershocks continued to rock the area. “I kept seeing a lot of women seeming to be distraught and very shook up ...some of them just didn't seem to have a lot of support groups.”

Judy reached out to them on social media and organized a meet-up at an east Anchorage coffee shop. She chose that location because of the view of the mountains, and she wanted people at the meeting to remember why they love living in Alaska.

“We met, we talked,” Judy said. “One of them was really shook up. She had lived here her whole life. We got to talking about 'hey, listen, where's your hope? where's your faith?' “

Many people turned to professional counselors to help them cope with their earthquake stress and anxiety.

“A lot of what we heard was a lot of sleep disturbance,” said Bahiyya Young, a licensed professional counselor at Bridges Counseling Connections in south Anchorage. “A lot of people just either said they were having a hard time getting settled enough to sleep or for some of them it was like they were in bed when the earthquake happened so it was a little bit like triggering you by being in the space where the earthquake initially took place.”

A survey conducted by the Alaska Dept. of Health & Social Services a few weeks after the quake showed the feeling of anxiety was widespread among people who experienced the quake.

3,020 responded to the survey, and of those, 78% reported an increase in feelings of anxiety, fear, distraction, or worry; having trouble sleeping, or experiencing panic attacks following the earthquake. 59% reported that their children experienced increased anxiety or other distress.

But, what about now? A year after the Nov. 30, 2018 quake, how are Alaskans who went through that traumatic experience doing emotionally?

“People are pretty much okay,” said Young. “Most of us have gone on with our lives. Thankfully there wasn't a lot of aftermath. It may have been different if we had experienced more of a collapse of our infrastructure.”

Toni and Jennifer Skilja say the quake brought them even closer together as a couple, but there are still some emotional aftershocks, even a year later.

“So, I've been pretty anxious about another earthquake hitting. I've definitely been waking up in the middle of the night sometimes, if I hear anything” Jennifer said.

The Skiljas say they have refined their family emergency plan, but Toni says there is lingering anxiety about the possibility of another big quake.

“There's a peace of mind knowing we kind of know better how to act and what to expect, but at the same time it can happen at any time, and it can be worse. I guess that's the biggest fear if it's worse, then what?”

Judy Lavigne's outlook a year after the quake if pragmatic, and hopeful. “We love this place...we love Alaska...we stay here for a reason...but, we know we have to put up with the ground shaking.”

The state health department has not done any follow-up studies about the mental health impacts of the November 30th quake, but to read the results of the survey done in the weeks after the quake, click

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