More than 85 percent of all firearm deaths in 2020 in the state of Maine were suicides, according to a report submitted by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services.
In 2020, 154 people were killed with firearms in Maine: 132 died by suicide; 19 were shot by someone else; and three were shot accidentally. An additional 39 people were hospitalized with gunshot wounds and survived, per the report.
Prior to the new annual report, there had not been a mechanism for gathering comprehensive data on firearm injuries and deaths readily available to the public. State Rep. Lori Gramlich (D-13th District ) fronted a bill in 2021 requiring the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate with other agencies to collect data on gun violence in the state.
The report’s findings reveal that a firearm was used in 56 percent of suicides reported in Maine in 2020, and that men are about eight times more likely to use a gun in a suicide attempt than women.
“This data shows we in Maine are experiencing rates of suicide using firearms above the national average,” said Gramlich.
As a result of the collected data, Maine is investing more than $230 million to promote state-wide suicide prevention and increase mental health services, according to the DHHS.
The report coincides with a reigniting of the gun control conversation in the wake of the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. While the national conversation is driven by murders and mass shootings, suicide by firearms is driving the conversation in Maine, leading policymakers to consider measures that would improve the mental health system and limit access to firearms, especially by people in crisis.
Greg Marley, clinical director at NAMI Maine, said the priority in safety planning around firearms is making sure there is time and space between an individual in crisis and his or her access to a gun.
“Firearms in the state of Maine have to be at the core of that conversation,” he said. “Having access, having a firearm in the home—balanced with other factors—significantly increases someone’s risk of suicide by about a factor of three.”
Marley also noted that he would like to see some of the investment used to improve the coordination between mental health crisis response and law enforcement.
“It’s about making sure the police are responding to the things that they do best and increasing the capacity to have a mental health crisis response, either with them or separate when law enforcement is not needed,” he said.
Gramlich said the numbers in the report make it clear that Maine has a public health crisis that is leading to an increase in firearms-related deaths. She believes strengthening Maine’s mental health system is the top priority.
“For decades, the system has been increasingly fractured and underfunded, which has meant far too many Mainers struggle with mental and behavioral health issues because they cannot access the care they need,” she said. “When folks are in crisis, they need to have the resources available to them so they can get the help they need.”
Marley agreed with Gramlich’s concerns about the current state of the mental health system. He said health professionals are struggling to get individuals into step-down care following hospitalization because of a lack of resources.
“There’s been a huge increase in need for counseling and outpatient therapy,” he said. “And we don’t have the capacity to take people in. So, there are a lot of wait lists around.”
According to Gramlich, the $230 million in behavioral health includes a one-time general fund payment to providers of Home and Community Treatment ($3.55 million), Assertive Community Treatment ($3.55 million), outpatient therapy for children and adults ($3 million), and Targeted Case Management ($2 million).
“With the challenges of staffing, access in rural areas and meeting the priority of providing services in the community, these one-time funds will help stabilize community behavioral health services at a time when the need has never been greater,” she said.
Gramlich added that she and her colleagues are currently meeting with behavioral health advocates to assess priorities for the upcoming legislative session.
“I anticipate that we will once again introduce legislation aimed to increase reimbursement rates for community health providers and outpatient therapy, as rates for these services have not been adjusted for decades.”