Melissa Fochesato of Mid Coast Hospital has become alarmed at the state of many local students’ mental health.

Her concern began after reading answers related to mental health from high school students in Sagadahoc County, Brunswick and Harpswell on the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey 2013 survey.

Things haven’t gotten better. According to the 2017 survey, 28 percent of students reported signs of depression the past year. Of those students, only 26 percent reported getting help from an adult.

Another 16 percent of students considered suicide — higher than the state average — and only 60 percent reported they matter to people in their community.



Between 2012 to 2014, Maine’s suicide rate rose by 30 percent. The number of those between the ages of 15 and 24 who committed suicide rose from 17 in 2007 to 30 in 2013, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and reported by the Portland Press Herald.


For those like Fochesato, the need to connect youth suffering from mental illness with the right resources has become imperative.

Jenna Mehnert, director of National Alliance of Mental Illness Maine, said students must be connected to the right resources in order to help reverse this trend.

“We need to meet kids and families where they are at,” said Mehnert, “and not expect the clinician doors are going to be the first they’re at.”

Many mental health issues revolve around school culture, she said. Mehnert said there are different evidence based models to create youth leaders aimed at reducing bullying and improving the overall culture in the school.

Additionally, she noted that median onset of anxiety is now at age 11.

Mehnert said it’s difficult to assess how schools are helping students with mental health issues, because there are no such uniform standards. She noted there is not even a uniform curriculum for teaching about mental health; some schools do it well, others do not.


“So, from the perspective of mental health and student well-being, there’s no minimum floor,” Mehnert said. “The frustrating thing is, a student who is struggling will not learn. If we are not supporting the entire child, we’re just wasting money.”

The right resources

“We have to build bridges to the mental health world,” Mehnert said.

One of the ways to do that is to get students talking to social workers in the schools, building a trusting relationship, and following recommendations to seek additional help, if needed.

While guidance counselors in school are focused on academic and vocational planning,

Mehnert said, social workers — who focus on mental well-being — can address some of the most difficult issues a student faces, such as the death of a parent or peer.


Often social workers are contracted through agencies, like Sweetser, and placed in school to provide MaineCare services as co-located clinicians. That often means a student is billed for social worker services, which may be a detriment for a student seeking help — especially one who is uninsured.

Mehnert suggested schools hire social workers as staff, thereby eliminating the need to have insurance.

Fochesato, who directs the community health promotion at Mid Coast Hospital, works with schools in Sagadahoc County, Brunswick and Harpswell regarding youth mental health and substance abuse.

Fochesato oversees the hospital’s disease prevention and health promotion efforts, which includes early detection. A strong component of that is community training the hospital offers on mental health.

“One of the initiatives that we’re spearheading is training — offering free community and school trainings in youth mental health first said,” she said. “It’s just like the physical first aid we’re familiar with.”

The training is for anyone who works with kids and youth, to help them be able to identify signs of crisis, intervene and connect children to help. The hospital partners with NAMI Maine to deliver the training.


“We need to start seeing mental health issues just as we do any other chronic disease,” Fochesato said.

Training efforts also help youth support their peers.

“We’ve done youth mental health trainings with kids 16 and above to help them be those eyes and help their peers get help,” Fochesato said, “because they’re often going to recognize the signs before any adult will.”

Community work

Fochesato said an effort is being made to give students tools to be resilient. Some examples are being active at the skate park in Bath, or sports teams or clubs they can join.

“Those are the sorts of things you can do in the schools and community for them to be resilient,” Fochesato said, “and tools to thrive in spite of things in their life you can’t control.”


Mid Coast Hospital is leading a community initiative to identify barriers and find out why kids aren’t getting help, including a parent focus group meeting to find out what happened when they tried to get help for their children.

A June community meeting will include representatives from schools, police departments, the hospital and other community stakeholders will center on assessing adolescent treatment barriers.

“We view these as community issues and not just school issues,” Fochesato said, noting that she have worked in the public health arena for more than 20 years.

She said it’s unfair and unrealistic to expect schools to be solely responsible for children’s health, and that it requires a community solution.

“I think we all need to work on making mental health treatment accessible, period,” Fochesato said.

Young people can get help by talking to an adult they trust, or by calling the crisis hotline at (888) 568-1112.

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