Project will explore the impact alcohol has had on community

It’s been six years since the Daily News-Miner last took a close look at the community impact of alcohol abuse. The four-part series the newspaper produced that year focused on the continuing effort to combat the high presence of regular public inebriates in downtown Fairbanks.

That series itself was a follow-up to a 2003 series the newspaper produced after creation of the Chronic Inebriate Task Force, a group of Fairbanks community representatives and medical and social service experts who were looking for ways to reduce the damage alcohol abuse was causing not only to individuals but also to the community.

Their effort helped make Downtown Fairbanks, through a multi-faceted approach, a safer and more inviting place to be these days.

The larger local and statewide battle hasn’t been won, however. Numerous charts, graphs and statistics tell the story. Here’s just one: The prevalence of alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse in Alaska is twice the national average of 7 percent, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Even so, there has been some success. For example, the number of Alaskans age 12 to 20 reporting they went on a drinking binge within the past month of being asked that question has declined noticeably since 2009, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The rate fell below the national average in 2012-2013.

The story of Alaska’s relationship with alcohol is far from over.

That’s why the Daily News-Miner’s reporters and photographers will be spending a portion of their time during the next year on a grant-funded project titled “Paths to Recovery: Solving Alaska’s alcohol problem.”

What you see in today’s edition of the Daily News-Miner is the visible beginning of that project, which is a partnership between the newspaper and the Recover Alaska Media Project Fund at the Alaska Community Foundation. The purpose is to focus public attention on, and cause discussion about, possible solutions to the alcohol problem and to highlight — and learn from — the successes that have so far been realized.

Contributors to the Recover Alaska Media Project Fund include the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Rasmuson Foundation, Mat-Su Health Foundation, Southcentral Foundation, Providence Health & Services Alaska and Doyon, Limited.

Recover Alaska is providing major funding for the News-Miner’s “Paths to Recovery” project, as it did with the “State of Intoxication” project produced by the former Anchorage Daily News. That project looked closely at the causes and impacts of alcohol abuse in Alaska.

What’s especially important to note here is the News-Miner has sole responsibility for the selection and editing of all content produced as part of this project. Nothing produced by the News-Miner will be submitted to anyone outside of the News-Miner for prior approval.

Alcohol abuse is a well-documented problem that has been reported on by many media outlets, including, as noted earlier, the Daily News-Miner and the Anchorage Daily News. It’s a problem that has flowed throughout Alaska’s history following its settling by whites — from the Russian era, through its time as a U.S. territory, and through the half-century of statehood. It afflicts not only the inebriate you see on the street but also the suited professional drinking heavily out of view at home.

Because of that well-documented reporting on the causes and impacts, “Paths to Recovery,” a title chosen by News-Miner staff members, will focus on the search for solutions. We’ll assess the treatment system in Fairbanks and in the state — the continuum of care, in the language of those in the field. Where are the gaps in our continuum? What are we doing well? What are other states doing better than Alaska?

In the end, the goal is a simple one, although the problem is complex: We hope, through this project and the related independent efforts of the Recover Alaska team, to provide information so Alaskans and their leaders can make decisions that will put this state on the right path against alcohol abuse.

Originally published November 6, 2015 by Rod Boyce in Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.