To join a suicide prevention hotline, call the new three-digit hotline 988 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Suicide Prevention Services can also be reached at 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255).
More than a third of middle school students in Piscataquis and Somerset counties reported feelings of sadness and hopelessness in 2021, exceeding the state average, according to data released last week.
Across both counties, 34.7% of middle school students answered “yes” to the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey question about feeling sad or hopeless for more than two consecutive weeks. That’s an increase of 30% in Piscataquis and 23.2% in Somerset since before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The rate also climbed statewide for middle school students, from 24.8% in 2019 to 29.6% in 2021. Nearly 36% of high school students in 2021 reported experiencing feelings of sadness and desperation for more than two consecutive weeks in the last year.
Mental health statistics show how middle school students who were already navigating complex emotions felt amid the pandemic. Piscataquis County officials who found the 2019 data surprising 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, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s program manager for youth health. adolescents and injury prevention.
“From where I sit, this is one of our most pressing priorities,” she said. “It’s about recognizing that young people are struggling with their mental health needs. It’s going to affect so many areas of their lives – their ability to learn, to work, and to do things that are healthy and important to their development.
Maine’s biennial Integrated Youth Health Survey, given to students in grades 5 through 12 since 2009, is one of the richest sources of data officials have about what’s happening in students’ lives. , she said. The survey, conducted by the Maine Departments of Health and Education, asks about safety, bullying, tobacco and alcohol use, marijuana and other topics.
While there were significant spikes in the data compared to 2019, it likely wasn’t caused by the pandemic, Nelson said. She acknowledged the unique stressors children faced during COVID-19, but looking at the numbers over time, it’s clear this isn’t a new issue.
“We don’t want people to lose sight of the fact that young people struggled before COVID and continue,” she said, and appropriate action should be taken by trusted adults and community leaders. state and county to resolve these difficulties.
It’s possible that other rural and low-income counties — such as Aroostook, Hancock, and Washington — also saw increases in feelings of sadness and hopelessness and other data points, but all of the results from the investigation were not published.
The pandemic has been a difficult time for schools and although around 50,000 students were surveyed in 2021, turnout was lower than usual, Nelson said, which could affect the accuracy and validity of the data. . This is why middle school results for Washington County, for example, are missing, but high school results are available.
Students are also asked if they have ever seriously considered suicide. Statewide, among middle schoolers, that rate increased slightly, from 19.8% in 2019 to 20% in 2021. Among high schoolers, it rose from 16.4% in 2019 to 18.5% in 2021.
In Piscataquis County, that rate dropped from 24.5% to 24% for college students. And in Somerset County, it went from 19.8% to 21.3%.
During a community dinner and discussion on adolescent mental health at Piscataquis Community High School in Guilford last week, Greg Marley urged parents and educators to think about how they can support children in their lives, even those that are not theirs. Marley works as the Senior Clinical Director of Suicide Prevention at NAMI Maine.
“What’s the story behind all these numbers?” He asked. “What does this tell you about your children and how they are doing?”
Although turnout was lower than organizers had hoped, parents and students on the Affirmative Action Teams – led by Northern Light Mayo Hospital in schools across the county – spoke of the expectations hanging over students, the influence of social media, the 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 CA Dean hospitals.
Other initiatives are also underway, such as a pilot program to bring telehealth behavioral counseling services to rural school districts, she said. The program started this year in Guilford and provides students with access to mental health resources during the school day, as families often face cost and insurance barriers or don’t have time to take their children to see counsellors.
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 high school in a support role for students, Starbird said, noting that creative solutions are particularly needed in rural communities.
“We would like to replicate this model in other schools in Piscataquis,” she said.
At the state level, officials are working to reach children before their struggles begin, Nelson said. There are also efforts like a youth suicide prevention program, launched 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 contemplating suicide, is another aspect in schools across the state, she said.
Although state and county agencies have a basis for programming, Nelson acknowledged that changes may be needed to address declining mental health among young Mainers.
Over time, youth health surveys have shown worsening problems for girls in particular, and the disparity means 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 the resources to meet their needs, she said.
Public health agencies need to look at how to better support middle and high school students and implement resources specifically tailored to particular groups, Nelson said. The more access adults can create for young people and the sooner they can do it, the better off they will be, she said.
“Young people are watching us,” she says. “If we’re shy or reluctant 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 not to send them stigma.
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