Today, Beth walked down the road from school. A neighbor is raking leaves, a family walks out of the post office, but no one speaks to Beth or waves hello. David walks to school. Each day David passes the same shops and store owners on Main Street. David doesn’t hear “good morning.” David and Beth feel isolated. Across Maine, experiences like these are missed opportunities for youth to feel a sense of human connection. Seemingly insignificant events, when practiced, small words and being noticed can help children feel connected, that they matter.

Opportunities to build connections and positive relationships with adults outside the home increase the capacity to grow resilience, contributing to the well-being of youth. According to the 2019 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, when asked, “Do you agree or disagree that in your community, you feel like you matter to people?” 59.4 percent of Maine middle schoolers “strongly agreed” or “agreed” that they mattered. For Maine high schoolers, it was 56.6 percent.

The Maine Resilience Building Network is enlisting thought leaders from our state and beyond to answer critical questions that will pave the way to ensuring that by 2023, 73 percent of Maine youth will respond to this survey by saying that they matter. This benchmark to grow from will provide for a more resilient Maine, affecting economic and community health.

Mattering is a key protective factor in the opioid epidemic, and to a multitude of risk factors to health and well- being that we are confronting in our nation and state. In 2018, Gov. Mills proclaimed Maine has an opioid crisis. In July, the Maine Attorney General’s Office reported that drug fatalities were 23 percent higher in the first quarter of 2020 than in the fourth quarter of 2019, most due to opioids.

The 2017 Trust for America’s Health report Pain in the Nation spotlights the epidemic of “diseases of despair” in the U.S. – drug overdose, alcohol and suicide. Maine is experiencing a public health crisis – an increase in these diseases of despair. Loneliness and social isolation, combined with lack of access to services for many rural Mainers, contribute to the problem, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Psychologist Gordon Flett states, “Mattering is the sense of being significant and valued by other people. … People who believe they matter to others have a key protective resource that typically buffers them from life stressors and challenges throughout their lives.” Ensuring that young people feel they matter is a community affair.

Maine high school students who say they “have support from adults other than their parents” has decreased from 65.8 percent to 50.7 percent in just two years.

To address this crisis, we must go upstream with prevention efforts to build positive childhood experiences and resilience. Families, schools and communities must tell children and youth that they matter. The Pain in the Nation 2019 update found that “protective factors that help guard against substance use disorders and mental health problems include school-connectedness – students believing that the adults and peers at their schools care about them.”

Researchers Christina Bethell from Oregon Health and Science University and Robert Sege from the Tufts University School of Medicine find “positive experiences and supportive relationships provide the buffering that allows children to withstand, or recover, from adverse experiences.” This conclusion is supported by research from Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, which indicated that positive factors counterbalance adversity and help optimize resilience, including “the availability of at least one stable, caring and supportive relationship between a child and the important adults in his or her life. These relationships begin in the family, and can include neighbors, providers of early care and education, teachers, social workers or coaches, among many others.”

The Maine Resilience Building Network is catalyzing a response. Like all public health issues, advancing young people’s sense of mattering requires interventions on several levels – individual, interpersonal, family, community, organizations, systems, business and public policy. Thought leaders and community advocates are joining the conversation through the Maine Resilience Building Network to cultivate mattering. Visit www.maineresilience.org to get involved.


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