A group of community partners in Sagadahoc County is looking to improve mental health and reduce the sense of hopelessness in area youth with the help of a $375,000 grant from the Maine Working Communities Challenge.

The Sagadahoc County team will focus on reducing the rate of youth hopelessness by 15% over the next decade by creating a “comprehensive web of support” that includes education, mentoring, training, jobs and healthcare, according to the team’s spokesperson, Jamie Dorr.

Dorr also serves as the director of the Midcoast Youth Center.

The rate of youth hopelessness, according to Dorr, comes from the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, which monitors health behaviors of students in grades five through 12.

According to the 2019 youth health survey results – the most recent year data was available – nearly 36% of Sagadahoc County high school students reported that for at least two consecutive weeks or more in the past year they felt so sad or hopeless that they stopped doing usual activities. That number represented a 30% increase from 2017.

While the prevalence of such issues were notably on the rise in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic has had “devastating” impacts on students and families across the nation, according to U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who issued a public health advisory on the matter in December 2021.

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In the advisory, Murthy pointed to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that showed feelings of sadness or hopelessness among high school students increased 40% between 2009 and 2019. 

According to a Maine Department of Education survey conducted last summer, 90% of nearly 400 school-based mental health professionals who responded reported an increase in symptoms of both depression and anxiety.

More than half of respondents also indicated an increased need for systemic support with issues such as mental health, barriers at home, academic support and food and housing insecurities.

For adolescents, having strong, healthy connections to their peers and adults in their communities can have a positive impact on mental health. According to Dr. Marc Kaplan, medical director at mental health provider Sweetser, kids that functioned best during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic had supportive relationships with family and friends, typically engaged in more physical activities and slept better.

Dr. Deborah Hagler at Mid Coast Pediatrics said that while social stigma is still a considerable factor when it comes to mental health, she saw an increase in need for mental health services even before the pandemic. Hagler noted that it seems people are realizing that help is available, particularly adolescents. “I am seeing that adolescents are more willing to talk about (mental health) and realize that it’s an important piece of their overall well-being.”

Outside of the social stigma, adolescents who are preparing to leave high school face another set of challenges in accessing services.

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According to Dorr, students who are in between high school and college often lose access to services they once received through school, such as help with mental health issues, food, housing or workforce training and employment opportunities. “There are systems in place until a person graduates from high school, (then) they sort of fall off a cliff of services,” Dorr said.

To that end, the Sagadahoc County team is looking to establish a “two-pronged approach” that provides immediate support for adolescents in need and focuses on proactive methods so youth are better prepared before they leave high school.

The team’s overarching goal is to pick away at complex issues by trying to create a comprehensive system of opportunity, in which adolescents can have better access to mental health treatment, workforce training and other opportunities within the community.

“The most important part of this is making sure we involve the people we want to serve,” Dorr said. “The wonderful thing about this grant is that it provides flexibility to test things out (and) adjust based on feedback … The issues are very complex and that’s why we need a systemic approach.”

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