Natalie Rincon poses for a photograph outside a Houston elementary school Thursday, Nov. 17, 2022, in Houston. Rincon, one of the new social workers, has seen firsthand the benefit of having a fuller mental health team at her elementary school, where many students are refugees or newly arrived immigrant students coping with trauma from their migration. Credit: David J. Phillip / AP

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Thank you for the recent article in the BDN highlighting the lack of mental health services in Washington County. In my opinion and from my experience, the logical first-line mental health responders for our children is the school. I know that teachers are already burdened with responsibilities that distract them from the curriculum, but mental health is a life-and-death issue facing many of our kids. 

It appears overwhelming! Where can we start? Several years ago, I attended a mental health first aid training session in my local elementary school run by NAMI and Healthy Acadia targeting school faculty and staff. It provided sufficient training for teachers and even the janitor to make timely and appropriate referrals to the school counselor, other professionals or programs. The response and feedback from the participants was enthusiastic and encouraging.  

What happened? Nothing! It was a one-time training paid for by the state with no-follow-up, nothing. I’m an educational consultant and member of the Maine Counseling Association. My partner and I twice presented a panel discussion at the association’s annual conference on the topic “Helping children living in substance using households.” Each time, we had more than 60 school counselors in our audience. We polled them to see how many schools had comprehensive student assistance programs that addressed the issues we all agreed were contributing to mental health challenges facing our students. Five schools acknowledged that they had a program, while only six schools did two years later.   

How are we going to help save our children? To me, it’s a no-brainer if we had the leadership to create comprehensive programs in every single school in the state that include training our staff and faculty in mental health first-aid intervention and providing sufficient counseling staff to respond to referrals. We as a state have less control over the availability of community mental health providers but we could make school-based mental health services available to every child through our schools.

Peter Duston