Mental health is worsening among Maine middle-school students

More than a third of middle-schoolers in Piscataquis and Somerset counties reported feelings of sadness and hopelessness in 2021, exceeding the state average, according to data released last week.

In both counties, 34.7 percent of middle-schoolers answered “yes” to the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey question about feeling sad or hopeless for more than two weeks in a row. That’s an increase from 30 percent in Piscataquis and 23.2 percent in Somerset since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rate also climbed statewide for middle-schoolers, which rose from 24.8 percent in 2019 to 29.6 percent in 2021. Nearly 36 percent of high-schoolers in 2021 said they experienced feelings of sadness and hopelessness for more than two weeks in a row in the last year.

The mental health statistics show how middle-school students already navigating complex emotions felt mid-pandemic. Piscataquis County officials who found the 2019 data startling predicted the new numbers would be worse, and they were right about some of them. 

It’s part of an ongoing trend of worsening youth mental health across the state, especially among girls, said Sheila Nelson, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s program manager for adolescent health and injury prevention.

“From where I sit, this is one of our most urgent priorities,” she said. “It’s about recognizing that young people are struggling with their mental health needs. That’s going to affect so many areas of their lives — their ability to learn and work and do things that are healthy and developmentally important to them.”

The biennial Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, given to students in fifth through 12th grade since 2009, is one of the richest data sources that officials have about what’s happening in the lives of students, she said. The survey, conducted by Maine health and education departments, asks about safety, bullying, tobacco and alcohol use, marijuana and other topics.

Although there were significant spikes in the data compared with 2019, it likely wasn’t caused by the pandemic, Nelson said. She acknowledged the unique stressors children faced during COVID-19, but when looking at the numbers over time, it’s apparent this isn’t a new problem.

“We don’t want people to lose track of the fact that young people had a hard time before COVID and continue to,” she said, and proper steps need to be taken by trusted adults and state and county officials to address those struggles.

It’s possible that other rural and low-income counties — such as Aroostook, Hancock and Washington — also saw an increase in feelings of sadness and hopelessness and other data points, but not all survey results were published.

The pandemic was a rocky time for schools and even though about 50,000 students were surveyed in 2021, participation was lower than usual, Nelson said, which could affect the accuracy and validity of the data. That’s why middle-school results for Washington County, for example, are missing, but high-school results are available.

Students also are asked if they’ve ever seriously considered suicide. Statewide, among middle-schoolers, that rate grew slightly, from 19.8 percent in 2019 to 20 percent in 2021. Among high-schoolers, it increased from 16.4 percent in 2019 to 18.5 percent in 2021.

In Piscataquis County, that rate dropped from 24.5 percent to 24 percent for middle-schoolers. And in Somerset County, it jumped from 19.8 percent to 21.3 percent.

At a community dinner and teen mental health discussion at Piscataquis Community Secondary School in Guilford last week, Greg Marley urged parents and educators to think about how they can support kids in their lives, even those who aren’t their own. Marley works as NAMI Maine’s senior clinical director of suicide prevention.

“What is the story behind all these numbers?” he asked. “What does it tell you about your kids and how they’re doing?”

Although turnout was lower than organizers had hoped, parents and students from positive action teams — run by Northern Light Mayo Hospital in schools around the county — talked about the expectations weighing on students, the influence of social media, effects of the pandemic and more.

More forums will be held in Dexter, Dover-Foxcroft and Milo next year, said Hillary Starbird, director of community outreach at Northern Light Mayo and C.A. Dean hospitals.

Other initiatives also are in the works, like a pilot program meant to bring telehealth behavioral counseling services to rural school districts, she said. The program began this year in Guilford and provides students access to mental health resources during the school day because families often face cost and insurance barriers or don’t have the time to take their children to see counselors.

While those involved are still working to access a telehealth counselor, Stephanie Doore of Community Health and Counseling Services spends five days a week at the high school in a supportive role for students, Starbird said, noting creative solutions are especially needed in rural communities.

“We would love to replicate that model in other schools in Piscataquis,” she said.

At the state level, officials are focused on reaching children before their struggles begin, Nelson said. There are also efforts like a youth suicide prevention program, introduced last year by Crisis and Counseling Services, where children and family navigators work with families overwhelmed by their child’s mental health crisis to coordinate care.

Training educators and community leaders on the gatekeeper model, which helps adults identify children who are struggling and considering suicide, is another aspect in schools statewide, she said. 

Although state and county agencies have a foundation for programming, Nelson acknowledged change may be necessary to address declining mental health among young Mainers.

Over time, the youth health surveys have shown worsening problems for girls especially, and the disparity signifies a red flag, she said. It means something is happening to this demographic that isn’t happening to another group of young people or that they lack resources to meet their needs, she said.

Public health agencies need to dig into how to better support middle- and high-school students and implement resources that are uniquely tailored toward particular groups, Nelson said. The more access adults can create for youth and the sooner they can do it, the better off they’ll be, she said.

“Young people watch us,” she said. “If we’re embarrassed or hesitant to talk about mental health, they’re going to get that message from us. Part of what we need to do is be aware and careful about sending stigma to them.”

To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call the new 988 three-digit hotline or visit Suicide prevention services can also be reached at 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255).

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