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If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112.
In high school, Pickering was a standout basketball player and a good student. Then in his early twenties while at the University of Maine, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a chronic brain disorder with symptoms that can include delusions and hallucinations.
“The sunlight that he had all throughout his life, with many, many friends, turned into cloudy skies,” his father, Joe Pickering Jr., said. “Then quite a bit of times, stormy skies. It was very, very, very difficult.”
Christopher Pickering, who his father emphasized was “so much more than his illness,” died Nov. 12 in a fire at his Essex Street apartment. Fire investigators said Pickering likely fell asleep in his bedroom after leaving the oven on.
The elder Pickering does not believe the fire was a direct result of his son’s disease, but does think it could have been prevented if Maine had stronger community support services. He said his son appeared to be “declining” more quickly in the past few months, and pointed to the way the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has impacted an already strained mental health support system in Maine.
Joe Pickering now hopes that his family’s tragedy could lead Maine to improve treatment for people with disorders similar to the one his son had. We share his hope.
Even before COVID-19, Maine’s mental health system was stretched thin. For instance, a 2018 report from the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) said the low number of child and adolescent psychiatrists in the state was at “a crisis level.”
Mental health challenges have surged during the pandemic. In a tracking poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted this summer, a majority of the American adults ( 53 percent) surveyed said their mental health had been negatively impacted by worry and stress related to COVID-19. The trends are alarming, but hopefully the attention being brought to this widespread issue will help chip away at some of the stigma that too often accompanies mental health challenges.
“The level of discrimination that still exists in our society quickly places blame on individuals who are struggling to manage their mental health challenges,” according to NAMI Maine’s 2018 report on mental health system reform. “While our culture respects physical health challenges, it so quickly demonizes those with a mental health challenge.”
Joe Pickering advocates for less use of “mental illness” to describe diseases such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression, despite the term being common in the medical community. He argues that it furthers a notion that these types of diseases are somehow not as serious as “physical illness”and therefore don’t deserve the same amount of public support.
No matter what these diseases are called, they need to be treated by policymakers, health care providers and the general public for what they are: medical conditions requiring medical treatment. Mental health care, not unlike dental care, is health care and should be treated as such in federal and state policies and practices.
With Maine’s first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines arriving soon, the end of the pandemic may finally be in sight — even if it’s still off in the distance. But the mental health issues it has exacerbated can’t be inoculated with a vaccine. Addressing those health concerns will take time and it will take resources.
We’re encouraged that so many politicians are talking about mental health and expressing concern about the current situation. With the Maine Legislature heading into a new session, that concern must evolve into action. And, like Joe Pickering has done, it will take a lot of people recognizing that they don’t know everything.
“When Christopher got to be 21, what I learned was that I didn’t know a hell of a lot, even though I’d been in the business of mental health services for several decades,” he said in a quote that is both illuminating and gutting. Joe Pickering was the head of Community Health and Counseling Services in Bangor for decades. “When he had that onset of schizophrenia, I learned what brain diseases were, and how they were so damn devastating.”
We certainly don’t know all the ins and outs of a very complex conversation about mental health treatment or mental health parity, but we do know that there has been a lot of political rhetoric about the mental health impacts of the pandemic. Maine leaders must prove that mental health is more than a talking point in the debate about coronavirus restrictions.
There is good reason to be concerned about how the pandemic is affecting the mental health of Maine people. Those concerns should be accompanied by an understanding that many of these challenges pre-date the current crisis. This is a COVID-19 recovery issue, but it’s also a longstanding health care issue that deserves greater attention and investment.