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'It really takes its toll' -- pandemic brings mental health struggles to light in Maine

Gov. Janet Mills' proposed 2022-23 biennial budget includes an additional $7.5 million for mental health via the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

AUGUSTA, Maine — It's been almost a year since the coronavirus pandemic first changed life as we know it in Maine, affecting the physical health of millions of people around the world. Just as relevant, but perhaps not as visible on the surface, has been the pandemic's impact on mental health.

Greg Marley is the director of suicide prevention for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Maine. He says one in four Mainers is impacted by a mental health condition and, throughout the pandemic, clinical depression and anxiety have probably doubled. Thoughts of suicidal ideation among youth have more than doubled. Marley says the pandemic's effects are stronger now than ever. 

"We're Mainers -- we kind of hold on," Marley said. "We try to get through, (but) as time went on and the stresses continued and the uncertainty continued, people have really strongly been reaching out for help."

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It's a need the recovery community has seen, too. Robert Fickett, the executive director of the Bangor Area Recovery Network in Brewer, says there is a strong connection between mental health and addiction. Fickett says a silver lining of the pandemic has been greater conversation being had about the realities of mental health conditions -- and perhaps more of an empathetic understanding of people dealing with substance use disorders. 

"Substance use disorder is a behavioral health disorder," Fickett expressed, explaining that isolation within the recovery community during this time has been tough. "Being disconnected, as we've had to be in order to keep ourselves safe through the pandemic -- it really takes its toll on people who are struggling."

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Highlighting mental health is an initiative the Maine Department of Health and Human Services is hoping to expand upon in Maine's biennial budget. Last year, the department received $4.7 million in federal funding that will last through at least July 2021 for its Strength in ME program. That provided for the expansion of the Intentional Peer Support Warm Line, creation of the NAMI Maine Teen Text Support Line, and additional support for certain crisis services. 

"This is an abnormal situation," Dr. Jessica Pollard, the director of the Maine DHHS Office of Behavioral Health, said about the pandemic and need for mental health services. "It would be, in some cases, strange if people weren't struggling."

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Governor Janet Mills' biennial budget proposal for 2022-23 includes more than $73 million for the Department of Health and Human Services, $7.5 million of which would be dedicated to mental health specifically, if the budget is passed. That money would help fund community mental health and substance use disorder services by:

  • Establishing new crisis services in Cumberland County
  • Promoting the Overdose Prevention through Intensive Outreach, Naloxone, and Safety (OPTIONS) initiative
  • Establishing a new team of case managers statewide to help prevent incarceration
  • Providing new MaineCare coverage for mental health intensive outpatient treatment

Currently, MaineCare only covers intensive outpatient treatment for people with a primary diagnosis of substance use disorder. This funding would expand coverage to other mental health diagnoses, like eating disorders, borderline personality disorders, intellectual disabilities, etc. Through intensive outpatient treatment, patients can be seen for hours at a time at least three times a week to avoid inpatient hospitalization and ease the transition out of the hospital.

"We hope it will get support from the legislature," Pollard said, adding, "We like to say no health without mental health -- I mean, mind and body are connected."

The Maine DHHS' total budget for mental health typically falls somewhere around $112 million. Pollard says the budget for mental health via MaineCare is much more. Public comment for the proposed biennial budget is open through Thursday, January 28. 

RELATED: COVID-19 isolation drives Brunswick teenager to suicide

Signs to watch out for include not getting adequate sleep, not being able to quiet your mind, and not being able to focus because of depression. If you or someone you know is in need of help, there are resources available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-272-8255, or text "NAMI" to 741-741 to receive support via text message. 

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