Our nation is facing a mental health crisis. Our high rates of loneliness and suicide result in a Mainer dying by suicide every 36 hours. Mental wellness is affected by numerous factors including trauma, food insecurity, lack of stable employment, level of educational achievement, hopelessness, chemical imbalances and social isolation. Given that the national median age of onset for an anxiety disorder is down to 11 years old and that a higher percentage of 10- to 14-year-old children die by suicide than die in car crashes, mental health needs to matter to each one of us.
Simply put, we have no comprehensive mental health care system, which has resulted in law enforcement becoming primary responders to mental health crises. Instead of timely access to the care we need, Maine’s families struggle, and when they cannot get help, our county jails house hundreds of individuals struggling with mental illness. Our lack of options results in the criminalization of the symptoms of our loved ones.
There is no one solution to improving our wellness and saving the lives of Mainers who have lost hope. There are, however, clear steps to be taken, which include increased state investment in the community mental health care system, early intervention programs, access to evidence-based treatment modalities, peer support and a revamped crisis system funded to provide therapeutic interventions are all critical steps. These are all things that should happen with some urgency.
Addressing the discrimination and stigma against people living with mental health and substance use disorders starts with each one of us. It starts with each of us advocating for a robust response that provide diverse options to address emerging mental health conditions and crises before a person languishes in the emergency department or a jail cell. It requires us to be mindful of stereotypes that hurt people. And, most of all, it calls upon each one of us to become advocates for evidence-based community responses.
A critical aspect of diverting people from the criminal justice system is the engagement of law enforcement departments with the Crisis Intervention Team Program. The CIT Program is the national gold standard for officers, mental health providers, peers and family members working together to build a community response. The program is free to departments and has been in Maine since 2002.
Law enforcement agencies in Maine that are implementing the crisis intervention team program include the Maine State Police; the Sheriff’s Offices in Androscoggin, Aroostook, Penobscot, Piscataquis, Sagadahoc and York counties; and municipal police departments in Augusta, Biddeford, Bridgton, Cape Elizabeth, Cumberland, Freeport, Kennebunk, Kittery, Portland, Rockland, Saco, Sanford, Scarborough, South Berwick, South Portland, Waterville, Westbrook and Yarmouth. To learn more and see a complete list of Maine departments that are implementing CIT with fidelity to the national model, visit namimaine.org/page/CITparticipatingdepts.