The Aroostook Mental Health Center is one of numerous mental health agencies in Aroostook County hoping to increase public awareness of mental health issues. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Star Herald

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Though the ways that people in Aroostook County experience mental health treatment varies due to age and the specific nature of their needs, many local service providers still see clients who struggle to access specialty services and overcome the social stigma often associated with seeking help.

Christie Wolf-Rogers, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, became the new owner of Central Aroostook Psychiatric Services this past spring, marking the first time in her career she has had to learn more about serving clients in a rural area.

Wolf-Rogers, who specializes in medication management and therapy for children and adults, said that the lack of reliable transportation and the long distances between regions of The County often are major barriers to mental health services.

Though there are more than a dozen mental health providers in Aroostook, including agencies and private practices, most are located in more populated areas such as Presque Isle, Caribou and Houlton. Telehealth is an option for many people, but only if rural communities have reliable internet access.

Since taking over CAPS in March, Wolf-Rogers and her two colleagues have served at least 300 clients on a regular basis and consistently receive referrals from primary care providers and other agencies.

“The number of people on a waitlist tends to fluctuate, but I have been booked two or three months out before, just to set up meetings with new clients and do evaluations,” Wolf-Rogers said.

But the biggest wait that clients of CAPS and other smaller mental health agencies experience comes when specialty psychological evaluations become necessary.

“If a child needs a more in-depth evaluation to look for signs of autism or learning disorders, families sometimes are put on a yearlong wait list,” Wolf-Rogers said. “That delays a diagnosis and the resources families could otherwise be getting from their child’s school and providers.”

The most extensive provider of mental health services in Aroostook County — the Aroostook Mental Health Center, or AMHC — has locations in Presque Isle, Caribou, Houlton, Fort Kent and Madawaska. In the past year, AMHC has served 2,392 adults and children through outpatient mental health services.

The Aroostook Mental Health Center is one of numerous mental health agencies in Aroostook County hoping to increase public awareness of mental health issues. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Star Herald

Lorraine Chamberlain, licensed clinical social worker and AMHC program director of behavioral health and integration in Aroostook, said that depression and anxiety are the two most common mental health issues that AMHC providers have seen both adult and youth clients face.

The region’s long winters and physical isolation, financial struggles, poverty and trauma continue to be reasons why many people develop feelings of hopelessness and/or anxiousness.

Challenges related to COVID-19, such as unemployment and isolation, have also led to more people seeking AMHC’s services.

“The demand has become much higher. More people are feeling isolated, alone and anxious,” Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain has also found that stigma regarding treatment and common stereotypes of people who struggle with mental health is still a prevalent reason why some do not become aware of and seek out local resources. Some people might mistakenly think that a mental health diagnosis is a sign that a person is “dangerous” or “crazy.”

“There’s still a tendency to see mental health issues as moral failures or think that people need to be really sick in order to seek help,” Chamberlain said. “But mental health is like treating a physical health issue. If you have symptoms, you see your primary care provider or a specialist. Mental health issues are much more well-managed today, with good treatment.”

To combat the social stigma, Chamberlain said that changing how people talk about mental health plays an important role. For instance, instead of referring to a “mental illness,” the term “mental health” can help people see that mental health is another major component of their overall health.

Collaboration between individual providers and agencies can also be beneficial to expanding access, noted Ralph McPherson. McPherson has been a licensed clinical social worker for the past 30 years. He currently is a case manager for Beacon Health, a student counselor at UMPI and operates his own private practice in Presque Isle.

He credited the Facebook page Aroostook Social Workers as a modern resource that has allowed providers to connect and make recommendations to clients.

“If someone has a client who is looking for a children’s therapist, a member of that group can post information about a therapist with openings,” McPherson said. “For an area as small as ours, we do a pretty good job collaborating, though we could always do better. Maybe we need to take the message [about mental health] to schools and other settings.”

Broader community outreach also is something that Wolf-Rogers thinks needs to happen in order to reduce the stigma of mental health for children and adults. Though advertisements and public service announcements are helpful, real-life connections can help people realize that they are not alone in their struggles.

“I’ve spoken with other agencies about how we might host classes on parenting, medication management and coping strategies,” Wolf-Rogers said. “When people can actually next together, they can figure out their next steps and realize they’re not the only ones dealing with those challenges.”