According to the 2019 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, there has been a significant increase in students with mental health issues. In Sagadahoc County alone, nearly 36 percent of students reported negative feelings and more than 19 percent considered suicide.
Nationally, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. The CDC reports the suicide rate increased a little over 25 percent between 1999 and 2016 with an escalation seen in almost every state.
These statistics have mental health professionals, caregivers, and school administrators alarmed. Mae L’Heureux, MPH, youth mental health program manager at NAMI Maine, weighed in on the problem.
“Maine has higher than the national average rates of childhood trauma, food insecurity, economic insecurity, parental mental illness, and parental substance abuse,” she explained.
“One could also argue that social media plays a role since it is so depersonalized and can lead to feelings of inadequacy and further isolation.”
Deborah Hagler, MD of MidCoast Hospital has been warning of the rise in mental illness in the state’s youth and the schools are listening. Superintendent Patrick Manuel is among them. His district is in Sagadahoc County.
To combat this issue, the elementary, middle, and high schools in his district have a range of different programs in place. They implemented a Social and Emotional Learning program for Kindergarten through fifth grade.
They work in conjunction with MidCoast Hospital for Youth Mental Health First Aid training. Manuel increased the staff and professional development around adverse childhood experiences while also incorporating the Sources of Strength youth-based leadership program aimed to help students coping with difficult issues.
The schools also hold “You Matter” days in which community members greet kids at the bus wishing them a good day.
“We’ve increased staff over the past five years. We have more social workers and guidance counselors on staff and more nursing staff in all of the schools. We’ve got more services that we’ve ever had,” said Manuel. “I think all of the programs make a difference with the positive things they have to offer. The kids know they’ve got someone who supports them.”
Manuel pointed out today’s student is under a lot of pressure. But, it’s not just academics. It can be worries at home and even peer relation issues. Like L’Heureux, he also said social media is part of the problem.
“Social media certainly plays a role,” he said. “But there’s not one thing; it’s a bunch of factors. Every student is different. Mental health issues could exacerbate what’s going on in life.”
Manuel and L’Heureux agreed that no single element creates the problem. But, L’Heureux commented we all thrive on personal connections and teens and young adults are no exception.
“Trusted adults in young people’s lives need to build resilience by empowering them to take charge of their own mental wellness, letting them know that they are brave for asking for help, and letting them know that they are not the only person facing mental health issues,” she said.
“When youth are supported by a community that listens and provides hope, the journey is less isolating.”
Manuel agreed. Forming relationships with his students and making them feel like they’re an important part of the school is essential. They need to know they can reach out and ask for help.
“It’s not just a school issue, it’s a community issue,” he said.
Adult support helps, but so do prevention programs. But in those programs, the emphasis is on prevention—intercepting the crisis before the crisis happens.
“We all have the power to help someone else feel less alone,” said L’Heureux. “Everyone who has a brain has mental health—it is something that affects us all.”
So what are some of the red flags to look for?
• A change in hygiene
• withdrawal and social isolation
• giving away prized possessions
• substance use
• sleeping too much or too little
• eating too much or too little
• not attending school or school activities
• grades plummeting
• not communicating as much
• a change in demeanor or who they’re hanging out with
All of these things illustrate how someone may be feeling hopeless, sad, or even suicidal.
Noted L’Heureux, “Showing someone you care, being a listening ear, and providing hope are things we all can do,“ whether a professional or not.