Maine Behavioral Healthcare has tracked more suicide deaths during COVID-19 than in the previous five years.
In this Jan. 28, 2021, file photo, a group of masked riders get off the Peaks Island ferry in Portland. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Throughout 2022, it was clear that Mainers are still grappling with the mental health toll of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Surveys of the state’s high school students found that nearly 43 percent reported their mental health was not good “most of the time” or “always” during the COVID pandemic. Maine health experts and advocates called the statistics “staggering,” “terrifying” and “heartbreaking.”

Overdose deaths in Maine, according to the latest report, are on track to pass last year’s record of 631. Substance use continued to increase, including for health care providers, while there were few resources for uninsured Mainers to withdraw from alcohol or drugs. Suicide attempts continued to rise during the COVID pandemic as the number of psychiatrists in the state continued to drop.

Linda Durst, chief medical officer with Maine Behavioral Healthcare, told The Maine Monitor she has tracked more suicide deaths during the COVID pandemic than in the previous five years. This could be because as the pandemic dragged on, “people have gotten less hopeful,” Durst said.

But there are efforts to address the despair. Gov. Janet Mills allocated $230 million for behavioral health services this fiscal year, including a one-time boost of $15 million for providers that began being distributed earlier this year. In December, state lawmakers proposed bills for the next legislative session that would provide federal funding for mental health resources.

High school programs like Sources of Strength empower students to help each other build coping skills through adult advisors and peer leaders. The Sources of Strength club at Lincoln Academy in Newcastle created posters, wrote an article for the newspaper, started an Instagram page and gave presentations during community meetings, said Lisa Katz, a social worker at the school.

“Because we were all thrown into this situation together and the boat was upset for everybody, maybe there is an opening there to talk more about mental health and about feeling off or having a rough time. In that sense, it was so universal that maybe it’s given more young people permission to say, ‘I’m not feeling OK’ or ‘I do need extra help here.’”

This story was originally published by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization. To get regular coverage from the Monitor, sign up for a free Monitor newsletter here.