A classroom sits empty at Scarborough Middle School in April 2020. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Maine’s children are experiencing more poverty, homelessness and mental health emergencies. High school graduation rates have dropped.

Three years after the onset of the pandemic, young people in Maine are still feeling the impacts of disruptions caused by COVID-19, and in many cases, groups that were struggling the most before the pandemic continue to face the greatest barriers.

The Maine Children’s Alliance on Tuesday released its 2023 Kids Count data book, a sweeping collection of metrics used to measure the general welfare of Maine’s youth. The data released by the public policy and advocacy nonprofit covers topics including maltreatment of children, substance use, obesity, school attendance and graduation, childcare, poverty, homelessness and mental health.

Although some information shows improved conditions for the state’s youth, most of the statistics highlight the struggles that children in Maine face.

In 2021, 34,000 Maine children – 13.8% of the state’s youth population – were living in households below the poverty line, which that year was $27,740 for a family of four. More struggled with food insecurity. In both 2021 and 2022, around 2,650 Maine youths went to the emergency room for suicide attempts or due to suicidal thoughts, an increase of 500 from 2020. And in 2022, 2,142 Maine students were confirmed as homeless.

At the same time, chronic absenteeism rose and the high school graduation rate dropped. Almost 50,000 Maine students – 40% of economically disadvantaged students and 23% of non-economically disadvantaged students – were chronically absent during the 2021-22 school year. That means they missed more than 18 days of school in the 180-day school year.


The high school graduation rate dropped from 87.4% in 2020 to 86.1% in 2021 after years of gradual improvement. The rate remained at 86.1% in 2022, the lowest graduation rate since 2016.

Mainers need to come together to support the state’s youth, said Helen Hemminger, a Maine Children’s Alliance research associate.

“It’s important that we work to help all children in Maine thrive. It’s important to Maine as a whole and to the future of the state,” she said. “Children are our future.”

Maine children are struggling in many ways. One notable trend is the significant decline in youth mental health.

In 2021, 35.9% of Maine’s roughly 55,000 high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless, up from 32.1% in 2019. The percentage of high school students who reported self-harming rose from 22.9% to 28.7% over the same time period, and students who said they seriously considered suicide increased from 16.4% to 18.5%. That’s on top of the 2,654 Maine youths who went to the emergency room because of suicide attempts or ideation in 2022.

Females and LGBTQ+ students reported greater feelings of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, self-harm and suicidal ideation compared to their straight, male counterparts.


“In Maine and nationally, kids are doing terribly,” said Jeffrey Barkin, a Portland-based psychiatrist and president of the Maine Medical Association. “There is of course variability from child to child, but kids have lost time in school and that has led to academic challenges but also social loss and as a result we’re seeing more kids with anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation.”

To make matters worse, Barkin said, there aren’t enough mental health resources to appropriately and promptly serve all the kids who need extra support.

There needs to be a concerted effort to help kids before things get to the point where they wind up in an emergency room, he said.

Just as recovering from COVID-19 academic learning loss will be difficult, teaching kids the social and emotional skills they didn’t learn during the pandemic is going to be a big lift, Barkin said. But it’s crucial to fostering well-adjusted adults who have the chance to be successful socially and in other aspects of their lives, he said.

Another area where conditions for Maine children have significantly deteriorated in recent years is maltreatment, including abuse and neglect.

The number of children confirmed to have experienced maltreatment increased 30% in Maine between 2017 and 2021, from 3,286 to 4,263. In 2020, Maine’s rate of child maltreatment was more than double the national average, with 19 per 1,000 children experiencing maltreatment compared to 8.4 per 1,000 on the national level.


Like most things, maltreatment doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The report said causes of child abuse or neglect, including poverty-related indicators such as unemployment, single parenthood, housing instability, lack of childcare and substance use, are well-documented.

One significant exception to the trend of worsening conditions for Maine youth is steady participation in public preschool. Public preschool, which has been heavily supported with state funding, was attended by 47% of Maine 4-year-olds in 2022, the same percentage as prepandemic.

Seventy-nine percent of Maine’s school districts have a public preschool option and that number is expected to jump to 85% by the 2023-24 school year, the report said.

Maine children are facing numerous challenges, but there also are numerous, well-researched and proven solutions to those challenges, Hemminger said. The challenge, she said, is garnering fiscal and political support for them. She said creating a state child tax credit, footing the bill for paid medical leave for parents, building a comprehensive mental health system, and supporting families in other ways that could help reduce anxiety and compounding problems all could help Maine’s youth and their families.

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