APTOPIX Maine Shooting

People depart a reunification center early Thursday, at Auburn Middle School in Auburn after the mass shootings in Lewiston. Mental health providers expect to see an increase in demand for services once victims are identified and the suspect is caught. Steven Senne/Associated Press

People across Maine were feeling the emotional toll of the mass shooting in Lewiston, and mental health crisis hotlines were seeing an uptick in calls on Thursday.

Three of Maine’s largest mental health service organizations reported higher requests for services via hotlines and mobile crisis units.

But the shooter was still at large, and several of those killed had yet to be identified. And mental health officials anticipated that the full emotional impacts are still to come, and some expected to see wait lists for mental health assistance double in a system that’s already stretched too thin.

“Once we start to see a shift in the suspect getting caught, and then as we see the victims’ names, it becomes very real and it starts to create triggering moments,” said Justin Chenette with Sweetster, a mental health crisis services agency.

Robert Card, 40, wanted on eight counts of murder, is the suspect in the shootings on Wednesday night that killed 18 people and injured 13 others. It’s the deadliest shooting in the U.S. this year, and likely in Maine’s history. A manhunt continued Thursday across central and southern Maine, and residents in Androscoggin and northern Sagadahoc counties were still being ordered to shelter in place.

In the 24 hours following the shooting, behavioral health providers and organizations across the state were in the initial phases of addressing the impacts that are to come on family members of victims, survivors, residents of Lewiston and people across the state.


Sweetster, Maine’s largest provider of mobile crisis services, has deployed teams to run mobile units and conduct crisis assessments across Lewiston and Androscoggin County. Jessica LeBlanc, Sweetster’s director of crisis and residential services, said the agency is also targeting first responders.

So has the Opportunity Alliance, a mental health agency overseeing the Maine Crisis Line. Michelle Hansen, senior director of the Mobile Crisis Unit, said at 4:00 p.m. Thursday that the crisis line was seeing a gradual uptick in hotline calls compared to an average day.

Sweetster is also preparing to assist federal agents working with survivors and family members of victims. For the most part, though, federal agents have been handling support for residents with a direct connection to the shooting.

Sweetster, the Opportunity Alliance, and NAMI Maine (another mental health nonprofit) are offering services to the extended community – people with mental illnesses or symptoms that are triggered by the events.

“It’s a triggering event to see those images on the TV, to know that it’s so close to home. I’m sure all of our sense of security has felt completely shattered, especially living in Maine,” Chenette said. “To know that it’s so close to home is triggering, for not only our clients, but folks that they have not sought help before for various mental health challenges.”

In an address earlier in the day, Gov. Janet Mills promised additional resources from the state for people dealing with crisis.


NAMI Maine said providers and crisis services in other states are also offering assistance if a time comes where Maine’s behavioral health system is overwhelmed. That’s not out of the realm of possibility, said Henry Skinner, medical director of Tri-County Mental Health Services based in Lewiston. As it stands, Sweetster and Tri-County both have wait lists of over 2,000 people while Maine continues to experience ongoing mental health-provider shortages. Skinner expects those wait lists to double in the coming weeks.

“The mental health treatment system in the state is already overburdened and stretched very thin,” Skinner said. “Now we’ve got this on top of it.”


Survivors and victims’ loved ones aren’t the only ones feeling the emotional toll of what happened. People across the state are hurting, too, said Anthony Ng, a psychiatrist who specializes in disaster recovery at Northern Light Acadia Hospital.

People gather Wednesday night at a reunification center at Auburn Middle School after the shootings in Lewiston. Derek Davis/Portland Press Herald

“Maine is not a big state. So everybody knows somebody. And when something happened in Portland, we feel investment place and when something happens up in Houlton, we feel it too. We’re very interconnected,” Ng said. “We hear all the time, ‘it always happens somewhere else, but not Maine – Maine is a peaceful place’ … This event just brings it home that what is happening elsewhere is now happening here.”

Ng said his providers are looking out for patients with a history of negative coping skills, particularly in a state like Maine with a growing opioid crisis that claimed a record 716 lives last year.


Anthony Ng Courtesy Northern Light Acadia Hospital

Ng has provided care in the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and sees a distinction in Lewiston. He believes that Mainers are under a great deal of stress because the shooting suspect, Card, had yet to be found and detained.

“Other (shootings) were over in about three hours, then shooter either committed suicide or was captured. This is going on for 24 hours now. But no one knows where he’s at, so it’s just adding to a degree of anxiety for people all the time,” he said.

Sweetster’s Jessica LeBlanc said the emotional processing can’t begin in earnest until the shooter is detained and the names of all the victims are released; until faces are put to names and residents feel like they aren’t in immediate danger.

“Once we start to see the names of the individuals of the victims, that will start creating triggering moments around collective trauma,” Chenette said. “It becomes more real when you personalize the impact of the crisis.”

In the meantime, behavioral health agencies are at the ready.

“Usually, the tragedies in Maine are not of this magnitude. There might be two people shot or four people shot,” Skinner said. “The ongoing tragedy is that life itself prepares us for this. And this one’s big, more shocking and orders of magnitude more awful than any of the others. But we know what to do.”

Counselors have also offered advice on how to help children and teens deal with the tragedy. Others feeling in crisis can call or text 988 for free and confidential counseling.

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