Upcoming events to focus on brain injury
Alaska's rate of identified traumatic brain injury is nearly 30 percent higher than the nation's, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services' Division of Behavioral Health.
Those numbers, and the need to confront them, are behind a series of events focused on brain injury diagnosis, treatment and awareness that is coming to Utqiaġvik over the next two months.
"Brain injury is so prevalent here in Alaska and it's so misunderstood and under-diagnosed, especially in the rural areas," said Julie Davies, executive director of the Alaska Brain Injury Network, which is coordinating the sessions. "A lot of people that I talk to that have had brain injury say that one of the biggest challenges is that they look normal and they look physically healthy, but they're not — they're really struggling inside. So, it's really challenging to live daily life."
The events are being hosted locally by the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope's Vocational Rehabilitation program.
In early February, there will be a training session for healthcare providers on two types of screening tools used to identify traumatic brain injuries in people. Then, in March, there will be an informational potluck on the subject with eight specialists, followed by a two-day clinic for people who want to get screened for brain injury.
"So often, the most rural, remote areas feel almost forgotten as urban areas thrive with services, information and community programming. The appearance is that large populations deserve more. The ICAS Vocational Rehabilitation program seeks to help our community fill some of the gaps and share information on disabilities through hosting specialists that provide what we are often lacking," said Director Dallas-Lee Brower. "When community members, from parents, teachers, police officers, health providers and our clients and others learn more about a condition, such as brain injuries, it allows people to better understand what to look for and that there are usually treatments once identified."
A traumatic brain injury, broadly, is when some kind of force injures the brain. It can be caused by an accident, when someone hits their head and when a head is jarred or shaken too hard, among other things.
"We live a particularly rugged lifestyle in the Arctic with whaling, hunting, four wheeler and snowmachine travel, as well as myriad daily activities," said Brower. "The change in topography, even several times in a day, with winds changing direction and snow and ice changing formation (can) encourage slips and falls (which) can break bones or even cause brain damage."
While the cause of the injury may be immediately noticeable, it can sometimes take time for the effects to show themselves.
Sometimes people can develop behavioral issues like mood swings and increased irritability that can cause problems in their relationships with others. They may have memory problems and may struggle to process visual information.
"There can also be problems with initiation in terms of doing things," said Davies. "It might look like you're being lazy or that you don't want to do anything, but you just don't have that capability anymore to get started on things ... . Depression and anxiety are also common following a brain injury. All of these things affect every area of your life and it's hard for people to understand because you look healthy."
That's one of the reasons brain injuries often go undiagnosed, she explained. They aren't outwardly visible, their effects can be written off and no two people are exactly the same.
They can also be very isolating for people who have them, Davies explained. People with brain injuries may have trouble maintaining their connections with friends and family.
"Other people, because they don't understand, they stop interacting with that person," she said. "So, if you understand that it's something going on in their brain, you can support them and interact with them in a positive way."
It's important for community members to take the lead in learning about traumatic brain injury so they can best help those around them deal with them and seek treatment, Brower said.
"The people who are often best at identifying someone who might have a brain injury are family and friends who see the individual who had an accident on a near daily basis. They can see if there has been a change in their behavior weeks or months after an accident," said Brower. "I have heard people say, 'He's acting funny.' Teachers and coaches are also excellent observers of students they see most days each week."
While the clinic is geared toward anyone who thinks they might have a brain injury and wants to get seen by a health professional for a diagnosis, the potluck could be especially helpful for people who just want to learn more about this type of injury, its causes and effects and how to recognize one in another person.
"Sometimes brain injuries can be closely tied to domestic violence, addiction, homelessness and mental health issues," said Brower. "Most importantly, people can have productive and satisfying lives though they have a brain injury. It is incumbent upon us as a community to support our fellow citizens regardless of the struggles that they may have."
Aside from helping community members and individuals, these events' organizers hope they will build a better platform for future support services for people with brain injury.
"Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of support right now, even in the larger communities like Anchorage. I think having a community support group is important. Being around people who understand what you're going through can be really helpful and can decrease that sense of isolation," said Davies. "What we hope to do is get the community aware of this, get some support groups or talking circles within the community started, as well as getting local behavioral health aides or other health providers trained in working with people who have a brain injury."
The brain injury training for healthcare professionals is scheduled for Feb. 6 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The brain injury information potluck will be held March 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the Heritage Center.
Finally, the brain injury clinic will be held on March 7 and 8 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day at the Heritage Center.
More information is available by contacting the ICAS Vocational Rehabilitation program.
Shady Grove Oliver can be reached at email@example.com.