SACO — In a recent Portland Press Herald column, Bill Nemitz put the spotlight on a former patient and now peer service employee of Sweetser to illustrate the “rising tide of Mainers whose mental health services are once again under siege.” It was an excellent example of one of many voices that needs to be heard during this session of the Maine Legislature.

People in Maine are going without behavioral health services because there is a workforce crisis in the community mental health system. In order to meet critical mental health and substance use needs of children and adults, we need trained professionals to fill positions – Suboxone prescribers, licensed clinical social workers, licensed clinical professional counselors, case managers, licensed alcohol and drug counselors – in community-based and residential treatment programs.

The Behavioral Health Community Collaborative estimates that its agencies presently have over 1,300 children and adults not being served by their programs in communities throughout Maine, because of some 200 vacant, very-hard-to-fill positions. With the level of funding that behavioral health agencies receive, we are not able to pay these valuable workers enough to keep them employed in this critical and sometimes very challenging work. Many rates for mental health and substance use services have stayed about the same for 10 years, even though consumer price and inflation indices have gone up by about 20 percent. As a result, we are unable to serve the state’s most vulnerable, including children and the elderly.

And now when our state is dealing with an increasing need for community mental health workers, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services has proposed rate cuts for the same employees who are needed to provide these critical services.

Sweetser is a member of the Behavioral Health Community Collaborative, which also includes KidsPeace, The Opportunity Alliance, Oxford Mental Health, Shalom House and Spurwink. Each organization has had great success treating people with behavioral health challenges in their home state of Maine. Those we are unable to treat because of a lack of funding now must seek treatment outside of their communities and often out of state, away from their families and other community support systems, making recovery much more difficult.

Also, because community mental health services are not adequately funded, creating a staffing shortage, people with these needs seek services in hospital emergency departments, where the care is more expensive and less successful. Sadly, circumstances lead many to situations that worsen their mental health and substance use disorders, leading to incarceration, where their illness is not well treated.

History has shown that if you do not dedicate resources to children early in life, their situation will only become more dire into adulthood. As the Press Herald said in an editorial calling for the closure of Long Creek Youth Development Center, the teenagers who end up at Long Creek are “teenagers with mental health problems – post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, depression and others,” who aren’t receiving the treatment they need.

Treating those whose lives involve trauma and/or substance use disorders is what we do – the earlier in life, the better. Investments in community-based mental health services can help our youth, and people in all stages of life benefit.

For children who need residential treatment, taking advantage of their natural supports and connections in their home communities, near their families, leads to far superior outcomes and much quicker reunification, all of which are more cost effective. Many of the children treated by our Behavioral Health Community Collaborative members and others have been successfully diverted from youth development centers.

Unfortunately, some youth are treated out of state because of the lack of in-state options. We can keep them in state for treatment if we are able to hire well-trained, qualified behavioral staff at wages competitive with other industries’.

Please encourage your legislator to ease this behavioral health workforce crisis by supporting rates that will allow for higher wages to fill critical positions. It is not only fiscally responsible – it is also the right thing to do for our state’s most vulnerable.