Loss of mental health support grant highly damaging to Maine youth

You’re probably familiar with the moment you receive bad news — the sinking feeling of your heart falling into your stomach and nonexistent walls closing in on you. I read something in a local newspaper today which left me in that space. It was not in the obituaries or police beat, yet I was left with a feeling of deeply personal loss all the same. Maine has curtailed the expected to be, but no longer supported $1 million, five-year grant to provide young people with or at risk for severe mental illness with support services.

You are a student at the University of Maine. You are enrolled full time, have student health insurance and work as much as you can to cover your bills, but — as many students can relate — you cut corners with healthcare expenses. You avoid going to the hospital, scheduling regular doctor’s appointments or seeing other clinicians due to the added expense.

You also spent the summer paying thousands of dollars in hospital bills after an involuntary hospitalization during the spring, following a suicide risk. Visits with therapists for cognitive behavioral therapy and a psychiatrist, who prescribes a mild medication, have helped you to live a normal life for the first time in years.

You live at a level of productivity and happiness you forgot you were capable of and your previous mental state seems like a distant memory. You sleep more. You are more helpful to your friends and peers as well as more consistent at work and your academic performance is the best it’s been. This is a life you would not be leading if it weren’t for the mental health services provided to you for free.

Today, instead of thinking about work or your classes, you are wondering how you will fit in this new, abbreviated mental health support system. That sinking, shrinking feeling comes from wondering how much of your quality of life you might lose alongside those appointments. But, as many may (and should) point out — there is the harsh truth that you are just one person. Yes, one person feeling scared or sad or anxious and worrying about their health care might pull at my heartstrings, but how does this affect the bigger picture? Well, that’s the problem. You are not just one person. Let’s go ahead and count the ways.

In 2015, Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services report details that about 20 percent of adults in Maine — that’s one in five — reported having any kind of mental illness. 15 percent of Maine’s high school students had serious thoughts of suicide, and suicides increased 17 percent from 2008 to 2014. In 2013, Maine ranked 11th in the nation in per capita suicides, and in 2014 there were nine times as many suicides as homicides. These numbers should scare you.

But, let’s examine beyond the emotional impact of those numbers. Treatment, instead of prevention, of mental health issues is a very real financial burden. The National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice reports that nationally, 70 percent of juveniles in the justice system experience mental health disorders. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services reports that nearly 60 percent of substance abuse patients had a previously diagnosed mental health condition and that this number is rising.

Prevention and early intervention have a very real impact and could help address these urgent social and economic issues. So why is the state turning down, without any explanation I could uncover, funding specifically dedicated towards young people? The odds are high that this affects someone you know. And I, for one, want answers.

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