A lone, socially-distanced figure stands at the end of a dock jutting out into Portland Harbor on Thursday Jan. 14, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Diana Jagde is the advancement manager at NAMI Maine.

For those who need help: call the Maine Suicide Prevention Program’s toll-free crisis hotline at 1-888-568-1112 or nationwide at 1-800-273-TALK or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

In recent weeks, we have seen positive trends in COVID-19 data — cases and deaths are down in much of the country, and vaccination rates continue to climb. Many people are looking forward to a summer filled with some of the activities we took for granted two years ago. However, it’s clear that the pandemic will have long-lasting impacts, and those living with mental health or substance use disorders have been hit particularly hard.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and we at the Maine Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness ( NAMI Maine) are working as hard as ever to educate the public, reduce the stigma and provide support for our community. While mental illness is no new issue, we know that more people have reported feeling anxious or depressed since the start of the pandemic, and increased stress, social isolation and loss of employment or income have contributed to increased rates of substance use and addiction. NAMI Maine’s Helpline, a mental health resource and referral line, saw a 35 percent increase in calls this past year. The trainings and free, statewide supports are now more accessible than ever and are being used at higher rates.

In addition to providing support and resources for people impacted by mental health disorders, NAMI Maine strives to support people who are struggling with substance use disorders. By creating opportunities for healthy connection and learning, NAMI Maine cultivates hope and awareness that recovery is possible.

In 2020, we lost 502 Mainers to overdose deaths. There is a direct link with the pandemic to the number of those struggling to maintain their sobriety. At NAMI Maine, we recognize this struggle and have tailored several of our trainings to those in the substance use disorder community. One example is Mental Health First Aid, a training that teaches about recovery and resiliency — the belief that individuals experiencing these challenges can and do get better and use their strengths to stay well.

In NAMI Maine’s Suicide/Overdose Prevention Gatekeeper Training, participants gain a deep overview of suicide and overdose deaths in Maine and the U.S. and learn basic intervention and resources for response. The risk factors and warning signs of suicide and overdose deaths are so similar that it is important to provide the skills for the community to start to have conversations around these topics. Prevention is up to all of us and together we can prevent the loss of Mainers.

NAMI Maine also relies on local partners to help us share information and resources with the local community. One of our partners, the Rx Abuse Leadership Initiative of Maine ( RALI Maine), is a coalition of partner organizations committed to sharing resources and supporting solutions to the opioid crisis. For example, RALI provides tips on how to prevent substance misuse through proper storage and disposal of prescription medications. They also offer an interactive virtual tour that helps parents and others learn how to spot the hidden warning signs of substance misuse in the home. Partnerships like this help us reach more people and surround our communities with the information they need to seek support.

Now, as we recognize Mental Health Awareness Month, it is crucial that we continue to check in with the people in our lives who may need a helping hand — and we must also support the organizations working throughout the pandemic to meet the increased needs of our communities. It can be difficult to think about tackling COVID-19, mental illness and substance use disorder all at the same time, but these issues are uniquely intertwined. NAMI Maine, RALI, and our other partner organizations remain hard at work, knowing that together, we can help our neighbors and loved ones find the support they need.