BRUNSWICK — Statewide mental health care provider Sweetser is using a $2.9 million federal grant to expand services in the greater Brunswick area, pointing to a growing need for mental health care that’s only increased due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Ashley Wilock, a clinical supervisor for Sweetser’s school-based and primary care services, said she and her clinicians are seeing the pandemic’s impact firsthand.

“Definitely through the course of the pandemic we’re seeing an increase in anxiety and depression,” said Wilock, who works with area youth and supervises clinicians in local schools, including Brunswick middle and high schools.

The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant is included in $4.5 billion distributed nationwide as part of the COVID-19 relief package passed in December. The local grant targets Sweetser’s work in Sagadahoc, northern coastal Cumberland County and parts of Lincoln and Androscoggin counties, according to an announcement.

As part of the March 2020 application, Susan Pierter, a spokesperson for Sweetser, said the organization cited data from the 2019 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, published by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in early 2020, that indicated a need for improved mental health care for youths in the area aged 13 to 21.

Of 4,800 students in the Midcoast area who responded to the survey, 35% of area high schoolers said they felt “so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some usual activities” over the previous 12 months, compared to just over 30% in 2017.

The survey also indicated that during the past 12 months, just over 19% of high school students had seriously considered attempting suicide, up from almost 18% in 2017. On the middle school level, 24.1% said they had considered killing themselves, up from almost 21% in 2017.

Pierter said Sweetser also noted the students’ responses to questions about drugs and alcohol, with nearly 49% of respondents indicating they had used alcohol at least one day during the past 30 days; 16% said they had easy access to prescription narcotics belonging to someone else, and almost 33% indicating they lived with an adult who had a problem with alcohol or drugs.

“Of course the pandemic has likely exacerbated the situation in the past year, increasing the need for focus on this and other services,” Pierter said.

It’s not just the kids, either. Wilock said parents are feeling the strain, too.

“They’re worried about their kids,” she said. “They don’t know what to do for their kids.”

Concerns about mental health, particularly substance abuse, extend to adults, too. Marc Kaplan, a medical director based in Sweetser’s Brunswick office at 329 Bath Road, cited a report released on Feb. 18 by the Maine Attorney General’s office indicating 502 opioid-related deaths in 2020, one of the worst years on record. That’s up from 417 deaths recorded in 2017, and 354 deaths in 2018, Kaplan said.

There is other, more recent evidence more people are seeking help. Pierter said data on the number of patients treated was not available, but Kaplan said calls to the “warm line” – a peer discussion hotline run by the state and staffed by Sweetser for people with mental health or substance abuse issues – have gone up 40% since the pandemic began.

“That’s a huge increase,” he said.

Kaplan said his office, staffed with 110 people, offers in-office therapy, with patients traveling as long as an hour to get to an appointment. Sweetser also uses the office for what Kaplan called the “nerve center” for various staff members operating in Brunswick, North Freeport and Southern Bath, including therapists, vocational rehab specialists, psychiatrists, counselors and care managers who work in conjunction with other agencies, such as therapists and social workers operating in area schools.

Sweetser, Kaplan said, has operated for more than 100 years as a nonprofit, paying for its services primarily through donations. The network does charge a fee for its services, but, Kaplan noted, “The rates we get for our services have definitely not grown with inflation.”

Kaplan said the grant will help pay to hire additional staff, both for work in and outside the Brunswick office.

“We need to get some very talented mental health professionals into Maine,” he said.

Kaplan said he also expects the grant to help fund additional staff working with local doctors’ offices, something that Wilock said is useful for patients who go to their medical doctor, but are looking for mental health care as well. If Sweetser can offer clinicians in the same building as a patient’s regular doctor, Wilock said, that makes getting mental health care easier.

“It takes a lot of mystery and anxiety out of that first appointment,” she said.

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