Credit: George Danby / BDN

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For more than two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed life for Maine people from all walks of life. Healthcare workers have been pushed to their limits as they work to keep our communities healthy; students, educators and families have grappled with the challenges of remote school; and economic uncertainty has put immense stress on businesses and households. And, of course, we have all grieved together as this deadly virus claimed so many of our family, friends and neighbors.

 As Maine people have worked to secure our physical health from the dangers of COVID-19, we’ve all experienced unprecedented struggles: increased stresses, social isolation, the loss of loved ones, frayed support networks, and more. These factors, combined with pre-existing stigmas and insufficient resources, have fueled an epidemic within the pandemic – an epidemic of mental and behavioral health.

 I believe this health crisis is a chance to make meaningful, long overdue adjustments in treatment – for all of us.

 To address the problems created by mental and behavioral health challenges, we first have to acknowledge how common they are. The National Association of Mental Illness found that in 2020, one out of every five adults in the United States experienced mental illness. That number is even higher for Maine kids. A 2019 study showed that one in four Maine youth suffer from mental health disorders.

We must also recognize that although mental health needs might not be apparent to friends or colleagues, they are serious – potentially fatal – health conditions. Substance use disorders have long plagued Maine communities, particularly the opioid crisis. For years, this scourge killed more than one Maine person per day, but those numbers have spiked as Maine set new records for drug overdose deaths two years in a row. In 2021, Maine lost 636 of our citizens to fatal overdoses, a 23 percent rise from the previous record set in 2020.

Mental illnesses also drive deaths by suicide, and over the past two years we’ve seen America’s kids disproportionately drive a rapid rise in suicide attempts in the face of the pressures and isolation of the COVID pandemic. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts for kids aged 12 to 17 increased by 31 percent from 2019 to 2021, with a jaw-dropping 50.6 percent increase for girls in the age range. These are shocking and horrifying statistics, which underscore both the stakes and the need to take action.

When we talk about mental and behavioral illnesses, we’re talking about life-threatening conditions with services often too difficult to reach for many Maine people, whether due to a shortage of mental health providers to geographic barriers to the distance needed to travel to visit a doctor. There are positive developments easing access to care, including access to telehealth – but even that relies on a reliable internet connection, which blocks many patients who live in rural or underserved communities.

These hurdles to specialized care leaves many Mainers with two bad choices. First, they can reach out to a non-specialized medical professional at already-overwhelmed emergency room departments, as I saw firsthand during a recent visit to Maine Medical Center. The second option is even worse: a person in need chooses to not seek help. Neither of these are acceptable, which is why we need to devote significant time and effort to creating adequate resources to meet this vital need.

Given the wide range of obstacles that contribute to these issues, any effort to strengthen mental and behavioral healthcare requires an “all of the above” approach. That is why I’ve introduced or am supporting a number of bills to tackle this issue from all angles, including legislation to require private health insurance to cover three behavioral health care visits each year, support social-emotional learning for children,  increase access to mental health resources in schools, and address childhood trauma.

In addition, I have strongly advocated for increased funding to strengthen substance use disorder treatments and support our mental health workforce through both Congress’s budget bills and the American Rescue Plan. We also must understand that there is far too much that we don’t know about mental and behavioral health, which is why I wholeheartedly believe that we need to increase funding for research into these crucial but underfunded areas of study.

We’re at a critical moment in time that will define the health of friends and loved ones for decades. We must use this crisis as an opportunity to improve shortcomings in how our nation addresses mental and behavioral health. We see the problems, so let’s continue pushing for the solutions and investments that will make a difference. Dedicated people across Maine are working on this critical issue every day, and I’m all in on helping them – and those they serve. Maine people have a way of coming together in the face of adversity – with teamwork, hard work, and old-fashioned neighborliness. Now is the time for all of us to rise to this daunting challenge.