July 20, 2018
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Unaddressed mental illness is a danger for Maine youth. I know because I survived that struggle.

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN
By Roger Merchant, Special to the BDN
Updated:

Here’s a story about a kid with mental health needs. He suffered, ongoing, from significant depression. Sexual abuse and family indifference — perhaps they just didn’t know he had emotional and mental health needs — were part of his mix. Some seemingly poor decisions skidded him to the edge, where if things had gone otherwise he would have landed in “juvie” and his life would have gone south.

More troubling for this kid is that he didn’t know what to do. He was lost and had no one to whom he could turn in his struggles and suffering. This isolation only added to his depression.

I remember him saying aloud on a walk home from school, “If this is what life really feels like, this is awful.” Somehow he kept going, carrying the weight of unaddressed depression so heavy upon his shoulders.

I know this kid. His story is true. That kid was me. Time has passed, and, yes, the world and I have changed. But the impact of unaddressed mental health issues and the need youth have for counseling and support services has not diminished one iota and only increased over time. To not want to see the obvious is to stand in denial.

I’m dismayed by the decision of Gov. Paul LePage and Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew to turn away federal funding specifically targeted for treating mental health issues facing Maine youth. Considering the facts of human life, youth with mental health issues are a vulnerable population in all communities from Fort Kent to Augusta to Kittery.

Rejecting the last three years of a $1 million-per-year five-year grant destined for needed counseling and support services that help youth transition to adulthood will result in raising the vulnerability and failure to thrive bar for youth, who through no fault of their own have mental health issues that need professional, family and community attention.

Can LePage and Mayhew imagine what it must be like to walk in the shoes of a young person who is suffering from mental illness or untreated depression and with no one to turn to?

I hear frugality arguments put forth by the governor and commissioner. There is a majority out here, including our vulnerable youth, who live on a very frugal, risky edge of life because support services have been denied, dismissed or taken away all in the name of ideological correctness. To me, this is heartless.

Given their decision to reject federal financial support for mental health services for Maine youth, we can anticipate that these associated socio-economic costs likely will increase: dropping out of school, lack of life-skills, failure to thrive and transition to adulthood, low income and poverty, substance abuse, poor physical and mental health, possibly crime, violence and suicide.

Surely the governor’s challenging life experiences would inform him of the reality and truth of youth affected by adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. These youth are in need of mental health services and the personal support that helps them deal with life and transitioning successfully into adulthood. But facts don’t sway these public-serving leaders who profess to be at work for hardworking Mainers.

ACEs come out of a study carried out by Drs. Robert Anda and Vincent Felitti. They identified 10 ACEs — largely focused on abuse, neglect and household trauma such as the loss of a key caregiver or parent, substance abuse in the home, witnessing domestic abuse, having an incarcerated parent and living in poverty, among others. These are only a few examples of trauma that children can experience. New Mainers, who are refugees fleeing war torn homelands, have experienced other kinds of trauma that most Americans can’t imagine.

Consider the research conducted on ACEs over the past 20 years. When you look at the personal and social issues arising from the impacts of unaddressed ACEs, you are looking at a mirror image of the costs associated with untreated mental health issues in our youth. The 2011 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System revealed that more than 40 percent of Maine kids have experienced one or more ACE. The lifelong potential repercussions of this trauma not only results in poor health, but recent ACE research informs us that individuals with four or more unresolved ACEs die 15 to 20 years earlier than others in their age-cohort group.

To ignore this is thoughtless, if not irresponsible.

Our neighbors in the Canadian Maritimes get it, youth mental health needs. I was reading in a Nova Scotia newspaper about a government supported, provincewide system of counseling services for girls and especially boys, who typically stuff everything inside and speak nothing of it, a known contributing factor to mental health issues. Their youth mental health support system includes provincewide access to services, one-on-one and online via phone and text. Canada gets it. Why don’t we?

LePage and Mayhew seem intent upon weakening the youth-serving mental health system by turning away needed federal support. If they won’t step up to the plate to strengthen mental health services for Maine youth, what are we to do? One could hope the Legislature might awaken from its conflicted slumbering on social issues that affect good, decent hardworking Mainers. But I’m not holding my breath, waiting for a wave of bipartisanship to bravely show up on this critical social issue.

Roger Merchant is a forester, social worker and a retired educator with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. He lives in Glenburn.

 


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