A resurgence of COVID-19 in Maine, a bitter national election cycle and the change in seasons are combining to fuel an increase in the number of people who are reaching out for help with behavioral health problems.

Although demand is rapidly increasing, critical resources for anxiety, depression, substance use and more are still available.

“We know there are people out there who are experiencing difficulties and thinking they are alone,” said Scott Metzger, director of recovery services for Sweetser, a local mental health agency.

Calls to the Maine Crisis Line have increased by 20 percent and calls to the Intentional Warm Line, designed for less urgent needs, have increased by more than 40 percent since the pandemic began. They had slowed during the summer and early fall, when Maine’s low COVID-19 case count was the envy of all other states.

“Now we’re getting hit with a big whammy,” Metzger said. “All these things are coming together and not at a good time.”

Metzger joined several other mental health professionals at a virtual news conference Monday hosted by the Portland-based Opportunity Alliance to remind Mainers – as they approach a holiday season without precedent – to be mindful of their own mental health.

The forced isolation brought on by the pandemic has been a challenge for many with mental health diagnoses or those at risk. As public health experts increasingly caution people against prolonged interactions with those outside their homes, things could worsen.

In the 12 months before the pandemic reached Maine, Sweetser’s warm line average 1,958 calls a month. Since April 1, that has jumped to 2,829. The average time spent with each caller increased by about 50 percent as well. The line is staffed by individuals with experience in recovery for mental illness and substance use.

A similar increase has been seen in calls to the Maine Crisis Line, which is managed by Opportunity Alliance. Between October 2019 and October of this year, staff fielded 95,401 calls. The average per day has increased from about 250 before the pandemic to about 300 since. Last month, the crisis line answered 8,734 calls – more than half of which were related to the pandemic.

“We’re seeing not only an increase in calls but in the intensity of calls as well,” said Tracy Mallwitz, program director for the crisis line. “We’re hearing from people who have never experienced mental health issues.”

Sometimes, the hotlines hear from people on a regular basis.

“We recently had a caller who is homeless, has cancer and battles depression,” Mallwitz said. “He called and said without this line, he’s not sure how he would have made it this past year. He has no family and few friends to lean on, so just having someone pick up when he needs it helped him get through those days.”

Other times, people call once.

“They got what they needed, and we may never hear from them again,” Metzger said. “Those people are actually the hardest to reach, so those calls can be really valuable.”

Betsy Sweet, representing the Behavioral Health Community Collaborative, a collection of agencies that includes Sweetser, Opportunity Alliance and others, said that people often just need a little support or reminders of simple things they can do to maintain their sanity. Get good sleep. Stay hydrated. Eat well. Get outside.

“Sometimes, we concentrate on what we’re missing, what we’re lacking, but if we can switch our focus and think about the things we have, that can help,” she said.

In addition to the crisis line and warm line (for less urgent needs), agencies across the state say the need for more acute mental health services is growing.

Gabe Smith at KidsPeace, one of the agencies that provides alternative response to Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services for abuse and neglect reports, said the increased stress and anxiety weighs heavily on families.

“And it’s coming from so many different directions right now,” he said. “The holidays already are traditionally a tough time for families we work with.”

Calls to OCFS dropped off considerably in the spring when schools closed and staff there were no longer making reports. Since then, the number of reports of abuse or neglect have resumed to similar levels seen in 2018 and 2019.

Kristian Stowell with Oxford County Mental Health Services said the increased demand for services in recent weeks has led to long waits for some patients in emergency departments. Additionally, she said, the wait list for counseling has been as long as 10 weeks for adults and up to six months for children.

“We have a large amount of people now needing supports,” she said.

Advocates for treatment of substance use disorder have been concerned since the pandemic began that isolation would be potentially catastrophic and the numbers have not been good. From January through June, there were 258 deaths from drug overdose in Maine, a 27 percent increase over the second half of 2019. If deaths continue at a similar rate in the second half of 2020, the toll this year would break the record of 417 set in 2017.

The state used $5 million in federal funding to create StrengthenME, an additional resource for those dealing with stress from the pandemic. That number is 207-221-8198 and is staffed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. seven days a week. StrengthenME supports a teen text time offered through the National Alliance for Mental Illness of Maine, a warm line for frontline health care workers, first responders and school staff, and a behavioral health marketing campaign.

Although agencies say support is available, the situation is tenuous.

Joe Everett, CEO of Opportunity Alliance, said as things worsen, agencies continued to be stretched financially. Without another federal stimulus package, and with an uncertain state budget looming, Everett said, “At some point those (cost-savings) strategies just aren’t effective anymore.”

The Maine Crisis Line (1-888-568-1112) and intentional warm line (1-866-771-9276) are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.


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