People listen Tuesday as a panel discusses mental health issues related to the pandemic during a summit at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — Imagine you or your child suffering a broken leg and being told no help is available and it’ll be a six-month wait to be admitted anywhere for treatment.

Mainers suffering with mental health crisis or substance use disorder don’t have to imagine that scenario, according to panelists at the mental health summit “Reimagining Community Services in Maine.” For some Mainers, it is the harsh reality they find when seeking mental health help from a system that has long been underfunded, understaffed and stigmatized. In addition to little uniform evidence-based standards of care, the industry has been staffed by workers who are underpaid for their highly stressful work.

And it is even worse due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, during which more people report suffering from depression and other mental health problems. The number of drug overdose deaths continues to break records and the labor shortage makes services even harder to come by.

“When you take all these multiple layers that everybody has been talking about today and you layer on that, not being able to afford care, if you can actually find care, and those layers just keep multiplying,” Simonne Maline, executive director of Consumer Council System of Maine, said Tuesday during the summit held at the Augusta Civic Center. CCS represents mental health consumers in the state.

“And there are so many different types of barriers for anyone that’s trying to access that, it’s just, how do I, as a human being, survive that?” said Maline. “And so many people just give up. They give up and they don’t get care. They go numb. They kill themselves. All the things we just, you know, don’t want to say out loud. People start using substances. It’s just a scary time in our world where people are struggling so hard just to breathe.”

According to a recent Morning Consult poll released by the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, 78% of mental health and substance use treatment organizations report increased demand for services over the past three months, continuing an already underway surge that began more than a year ago during the pandemic. In the same survey, 83% reported increased demand for mental health treatment, and 97% of them report it has been difficult to recruit employees.

Betsy Sweet, facilitator of the daylong summit at the Augusta Civic Center, said thousands of Mainers are seeking mental health treatment and substance use is on the rise, with more people dying every day. When they can’t find treatment, she said, they may end up in emergency rooms, jails or prisons, places not equipped to provide the help they need. She noted it is not a new problem, but is a growing problem.

“It’s a problem that is decades in the making,” Sweet said. “What COVID has done is put a magnifying glass to all the cracks in the system.”

But Sweet said there are reasons for hope, noting a trifecta of resources may be available to try to help fix the system, including federal COVID relief funds, a projected $800 million state surplus, and a pending settlement of an opioid lawsuit.

Maine Public reporter Patty Wight listens Tuesday to attorney Kevin Voyvodich of the Disability Rights Center while moderating a discussion at a get-together at the Augusta Civic Center about the status of mental health issues during the pandemic. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal

Chuck Ingoglia, CEO of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, keynote speaker of the event who spoke via Zoom to the roomful of about 70 people, said a model that seems to be working elsewhere are Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics that provide access to mental health and substance use disorder care. Such clinics are currently part of a federal Medicaid-funded demonstration project in several states.

Chuck Ingoglia, CEO of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, addressed the “Reimagining Community Services in Maine” health summit Tuesday in Augusta. Contributed photo

Ingoglia said the clinics are required to use a standard, patient-based treatment protocol, provide care to people regardless of their ability to pay, provide care 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and can see patients within a day or two of them first reaching out for help. He said such clinics are paid based upon the actual costs of the services they provide, allowing them to pay market rates which help recruit and retain staff who might otherwise be drawn to better-paying jobs.

He compared the clinics to the many community-based health care clinics that receive federal funding now, but for mental health and substance use problems, not physical ailments.

“At the end of the day we want to make sure that anybody who needs care should have access to care where and when they need it,” Ingoglia said. “It should be as easy to get mental health and substance use treatment as it is to go to the emergency room.”

Hannah Longley, director of community programs for National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine, said the ongoing difficulty of finding workers is a large barrier to providing more mental health services. She said the industry often loses workers to better-paying fields and is critically short-staffed, and needs to pay mental health workers a livable wage.

Diane Bouffard, who oversees a network helping to support parents of children with mental health problems, said waiting lists to get services are so long she has one client who has been waiting three years for home and community treatment. She said there are about 80 kids on wait lists now.

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