A masked boy runs along the sea wall at Spring Point in South Portland on Monday March 1, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Kini-Ana Tinkham is the executive director of Maine Resilience Building Network. Leslie Forstadt is the president of the network’s board of directors.

These are hopeful days in Maine. Vaccination rates are rising. Fewer people are getting COVID-19, and death rates are dropping. Businesses are opening their doors and tourists are flocking to the state. And more federal money is on its way to help repair the damage done by the pandemic.

Repair is necessary. But when it comes to the pandemic’s toll on Mainers’ mental health, it is crucial to include prevention in the recovery plan. Without it, we perpetuate the cycle of repair — endlessly dealing with mental and physical health issues after they occur. We need systems and policies that prioritize primary prevention.

Even before the isolation and disconnect caused by the pandemic, young Mainers

were suffering. Maine had the nation’s highest rate of children with diagnosed anxiety disorders and the third highest rate of children with diagnosed depression. Then the pandemic set in, bringing changes in routines, breaks in learning, distance from friends and peers and loss of safety and security for many of Maine’s youth and families.

Social isolation and loneliness contribute to health issues and even early mortality, rivaling more widely known risk factors such as smoking and obesity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes that youth connectedness as an important protective factor for health and well-being. However, not all Maine youth feel connected or supported in their community.

The Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey quantifies the problem by asking middle and high school students if they feel they matter to their communities. In 2019, well before the pandemic, 41 percent of middle school students and 43 percent high schoolers said they feel they don’t matter to their community. Without that sense of connectedness, they lack a key protective factor that could help reduce their risk of anxiety, depression, suicide and other diseases of despair.

The American Rescue Plan funding coming into Maine provides a unique opportunity to focus significant attention on upstream approaches to build protective factors such as mattering. We should not pass up this chance to build resilience in our youth. In additional monetary investments in training, education and policy development, individuals, organizations and systems must invest time, energy and caring into ensuring that every youth in Maine understands how much they matter to their community.

This need not be a choice between repair and prevention. By bolstering existing services and supporting school-based mental health services, Maine can help those who are currently coping with challenges. At the same time, we can support community resilience so that youth flourish and grow to be a strong part of our communities and workforce.

And if you’re wondering what supports young people need, ask them. Make them an authentic part of the process. That’s one way to show them that they matter.