Jacob Poitraw of Presque Isle smiles in this photo provided by his mother, which was taken June 4, the day before he died. Credit: Courtesy of Renee Duarte

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

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Jacob Poitraw begged for help to deal with his mental illness for years, but lost his battle on Sunday when he died after police shot him.

Poitraw’s mother, Renee Duarte, remembered her son on Thursday as an average kid who wanted to help anyone in need.

Law enforcement sought Poitraw, 25, Sunday after he allegedly threatened people with a rifle. He threatened police, led them on a chase, rammed a cruiser several times and was subsequently shot, according to Presque Isle Police Chief Laurie Kelly. He had a history of burglary and probation violations and had served time in prison.

Duarte said a health care system launched into chaos by COVID-19 couldn’t offer her son the long-term help he needed. It’s a familiar story. Across Maine, hospitals reached capacity early in the pandemic, and stress plagued health care workers and many others. With hospital staff shortages as well, people with mental and behavioral crises were put on waiting lists and kept in emergency rooms because there was no room for them elsewhere. 

Mental health was named the top priority for Aroostook County in the 2022 Maine Shared Community Health Needs Assessment Report. Contributors to the report cited lack of available providers, use of the emergency department for mental health care, long wait lists and a high number of youth suicide attempts in The County.

 The National Alliance on Mental Illness reported in 2021 that 223,000 adults in Maine had a mental health condition. Of the 37.5 percent of Mainers reporting depression in February 2021, 13 percent were unable to receive needed care, according to the alliance.

Though society may have only seen Poitraw as someone who was troubled and had been incarcerated several times, he was a kind, giving soul who sought help for his struggles with mental illness, his mother said.

Her son needed a year or two in a hospital on long-term treatment, Duarte said.

“I have fought for over two years now.  I have called everybody there is. I begged the system, ‘Please do something. My son is going to die if you don’t do something,’” Duarte said.

Originally from Presque Isle, Duarte lives in Hyde Park, Vermont. She was in Presque Isle the night Poitraw died. She had spoken with the Presque Isle Police Department on several occasions about getting help for her son, including on Sunday.

Police told her Poitraw had called them, and they asked him to come in regarding the alleged firearm incident.

Duarte was working with police to bring him in, she said. She described her son as suicidal, having lost two family members within a year.  

His brother Thomas Poitraw Jr. died last year on June 2 of an accidental overdose following chronic depression and addiction. The brothers’ father, Thomas Poitraw Sr., died on Sept. 19, 2021.

“I didn’t want him hurt. I didn’t want any of the police hurt,” she said. “He always told them that he would make them take him down, but he never had a gun on him.”

Duarte said as a child her son played with cars and liked going to school. As a teen, he got into some mischief and began struggling with mental illness, including depression. He eventually received some counseling.

The problem was that no one could offer him care long enough to fully deal with his depression and suicidal thoughts. Each doctor and specialist had an opinion and tried different medications, which interacted with each other, Duarte said. Soon Jacob turned to illegal drugs to self-medicate.

 He and family members reached out to Aroostook Mental Health Services and Acadia Hospital during the past three years or so for treatment, but largely due to COVID-19 shutdowns and backlogs, the waiting lists were long.

Poitraw attempted suicide several times in just over a year, his mother said. Four of those times he was on life support. He would recover, and facilities would release him, she said. At one time medical evaluations deemed him incompetent, and he spent several weeks at Dorothea Dix in Bangor, but other than that, he received no long-term treatment.

“People with mental illness, they don’t want to be sick. And Jacob would try to be better.  He knew he was sick, but he didn’t want to be in the hospital,” his mother said.

Poitraw’s obituary reflected his struggle: “The family bears witness to how hard Jacob tried every day to overcome his mental illness. There were many times over the past few years, and particularly in his last few months and weeks of life that he begged providers and agencies for mental help and was denied services.”

Poitraw had begun a turning point when he secured an apartment and a job, according to the obituary. He also had started going to church and was trying to mend relationships with loved ones.

Duarte said she has her daughter and a large network of family and friends around her for support. She finds comfort in knowing the kind of person Poitraw was.

“Even through Jacob’s addiction and mental illness, you could see Jacob bringing food, bottles of water, blankets and jackets to homeless people. That was, even during his addiction, the type of person he was.”