A texting service for teens has been established by the Maine branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Credit: Susan Cover / Spectrum News

If you’re experiencing mood swings, anxiety, sleep disruptions or relationship troubles, it’s normal.

Blame the pandemic.

“There’s no shame in focusing on mental health and wellbeing,” said Jessica Pollard, a clinical psychologist. “It would be more unusual if people weren’t struggling.”

As director of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services Office of Behavioral Health, Pollard said the state’s StrengthenME program is designed to help Mainers build resiliency in response to the pandemic.

Since the program launched in October 2020, it has been contacted more than 65,000 times and made 48 million impressions through public outreach, she said. Individual counseling sessions number 19,000, with 15,000 group sessions.

“Folks delivering services under StrengthenME are trained in a form of emotional first aid,” Pollard said.

Shortly after the pandemic began in Maine in March 2020, DHHS applied for a federal grant that’s designed to help people after disasters such as earthquakes, floods or terrorist attacks. The state received an initial $5 million grant and is using $2 million of a separate federal COVID-19 grant to support the program.

Pollard said although reactions to natural disasters follow a typical pattern, no one could have anticipated how long the pandemic would last. As we approach the third year of disruptions to work and school, not to mention the fear of getting sick, it’s no surprise Mainers need additional help, she said.

In fact, a recent study by researchers at the University of Maine and University of Vermont, found that 39 percent of Mainers and 43 percent of Vermonters who participated in the survey said they had gained weight since the start of the pandemic. Nearly half indicated feeling anxiety or depression and those who use tobacco, alcohol or drugs reported increasing their use during the pandemic.

“Our findings suggest significant health behavior changes and worsening health outcomes since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” researchers wrote. “Ongoing public health efforts will be critical to offset COVID-19 related disease and associated chronic disease burden.”

Through the StrengthenME program, the state contracts with 20 community partners to provide services that include help over the phone, community outreach and help for people in high stress jobs such as health care workers. The groups include the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Aroostook Mental Health Center, Sweetser, Wabanaki Health & Wellness and Portland Minority Health.

The Aroostook Mental Health Center, which serves Washington, Hancock and Aroostook counties, is ready to help with strategies and coping skills for those affected by the pandemic, said Sarah Wright, supervisor for the Aroostook mobile crisis unit. The services are provided regardless of financial circumstances and insurance is not necessary.

Individuals, groups or employers can reach out for help by calling 207-762-4851, she said.

“You don’t have to be in crisis to utilize the service,” she said. “You don’t want to wait until it’s so bad you are in crisis.”

A separate service for teens is being offered by the Maine branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Jada Choate, program manager for the Maine Teen Text Line, said they offer help for people aged 13-24 who text 207-515-8398 from noon to 10 p.m. seven days a week.

Since the line started in April 2020, they have connected with 678 unique phone numbers. The idea is to help teens cope with isolation, bullying, anxiety and depression.

“The Teen Text Line provides a safe space for young people to feel heard without judgment or shame,” Choate wrote in an email.

And for those who may be reluctant to ask for help, Choate had this message: “You are important, needed, and worthy of help.”

Pollard said mental health challenges following disasters often begin with stress, then a rebound and 12-18 months later, a return of lingering impacts that can lead to depression and increased rates of suicide.

The good news is that treatment helps.

“These challenges people experience after a stressor of this magnitude are amenable to treatment,” Pollard said.

To find out more about the program, visit strengthenme.com or call 207-221-8198.

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