Dr. Deborah Hagler, a pediatrician at Mid Coast Hospital, talks about the web of support students need during a Monday workshop in Bath on youth mental health. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

BATH A health expert is warning Bath-area school officials that mental illness is on the rise among local youths.

“If you look around, and you feel around in our culture, things don’t feel so good right now,” said Dr. Deborah Hagler of Mid Coast Hospital told the Regional School Unit 1 community at a recent workshop on student mental health.

According to the 2019 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, Maine high school students who felt sad or hopeless for at least two weeks in a row in the past year rose from 26.9% in 2017 to 32.1%, a total of about 17,000 students, in 2019. Students who in the past year seriously contemplated suicide rose from 14.7% to 16.4%, to reach nearly 8,900, the survey said.

In Sagadahoc County last year, 35.7% (503) of students reported feeling hopeless or sad (46.8% female and 24.5% male), and 19.3% (272) said they had seriously considered attempting suicide (25.2% female, 13.2% male).

RSU 1 Superintendent Patrick Manuel said his district has striven to address that situation in several ways. It has hosted Youth Mental Health First Aid training sessions for staff and students, the next of which will be held at Mid Coast Hospital April 4, and “You Matter” days, at which community members greet students as they enter the school. RSU 1 has instituted Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programming for grades K-5, and professional development around adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

The district has also added nursing, guidance, social work and educational technician staff – and implemented Sources of Strength, a youth-based leadership training program – to better support students in need, Manuel said.

Maine high school student suicide attempts in the past year rose from 7.4% to 8.9%. Sagadahoc County’s rate is 9.6%, which showed no change from 2017, according to Melissa Fochesato, director of Community Health Promotion with the Mid Coast Center for Community Health & Wellness.

Noting that trauma and repeated bullying is associated with youth depression and suicide, Hagler said the survey showed that 23% of Maine high school students reported being bullied last year, compared with 29.3% in Sagadahoc County.

Meanwhile, 46% of Maine middle school students said they had been bullied at least once, compared to 47.2% in Sagadahoc County.

“Sorry, this breaks my heart,” Hagler said.

She pointed to some startling national statistics. The suicide rate for girls ages 10-14 has risen from 0.5 per 100,000 in 1999, to 1.7 in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Even though the number is small, the rate in 10-14-year-old girls has increased by about 75% over the last decade,” Hagler said. “That’s pretty alarming.”

The rate for females in the 15-24 age range has increased from 3 to 5.8.

The numbers are higher for boys and young men, with the rate for ages 10-14 rising from 1.9 to 3.3, and ages 15-24 increasing from 16.8 to 22.7.

There were 24 suicide deaths in Maine between the ages of 10-24 in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, according to Robert Long, communications director of the state Department of Health and Human Services. The suicide rate was 10.46 per 100,000 in 2017, compared with the 10.57 national rate, he said.

“We don’t generally look at trends year-to-year for youth suicide deaths, because Maine’s comparatively small population means that the rates can fluctuate significantly in the short term,” he said. “Overall, Maine’s youth suicide death rates tend to run above the national average.”

“For schools, mental illness is a huge issue, because half of all symptoms of mental illness that will continue on into adulthood present (themselves) in adolescence,” she said, adding that school has a critical role in prevention, early identification, treatment and recovery from mental illness.

“Building a team and a web of support around the child is what will lead hopefully, optimally, to the best outlook for that child,” Hagler said.

Suzanna Lynch, a fifth grade teacher at Woolwich Central School, aims to do that.

“How can I soothe and educate an anxious brain?” she said. “One way is through acknowledgment. Kids must have someone who sees them. Kids need to know that they’re not marginalized; they are important, and they matter to me.”

As her students filter in each morning, Lynch said she makes sure to look each in the eye, tell them good morning and say their name, and she expects the greeting to be reciprocated.

“That simple practice is my litmus test for each student each and every day,” she said.

In her 15 years in RSU 1, three students she’s worked with have committed suicide.

“This important topic tonight is not someone else’s problem,” Lynch said. “By having a dialogue here we’re attempting to change the tide and the stigma associated with mental health and suicide.”

Jamie Dorr founded the Midcoast Community Alliance after the 2016 suicide of Evan Millett, one of the three students Lynch mentioned, as a way of providing mental health support to prevent similar tragedies from occurring. She is also president of the Friends of the Bath Youth Meetinghouse & Skatepark, a youth community hub.

Daily attendance at the skate park in the past year has grown from about 40 to 70 students, and in 2019 the facility engaged with 480 people between the ages of 5 and 21 who signed up for after-school programs nearly 7,000 times, Dorr said. The skate park offers youth leadership opportunities, cooking and art classes, summer math programs, sewing and tutoring.

Dinner is served three times a week and the center offers free after-school snacks and take-home food.

“We’ve worked hard to ensure that students know where to turn to if they’re feeling sad, hopeless or frustrated, or just feel like giving up,” Dorr said. But, she added, “suicide prevention is up to all of us. … Families can’t do it alone, schools can’t do it alone, MCA can’t do it alone. But by working together, I know we can make a difference.”

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