Lewiston, Jay-based schools to get funding to boost mental health services
Apr. 29—Lewiston Public Schools and Jay-based Regional School Unit 73 have been awarded five-year grants from the Maine Department of Education to increase mental health services.
Of the schools chosen for the program, Lewiston will receive the largest amount, $248,644 per year for five years. RSU 73 will receive $110,560 over the same period.
Three other central Maine school districts also will receive the additional funding, including $92,698 yearly for Somerville-based RSU 12; $141,655 for Skowhegan-based Maine School Administrative District 54; and $67,947 for Jefferson Public Schools. The remaining districts to get funding are Eastport Public Schools, RSU 24 in Sullivan and RSU 79 in Presque Isle.
The investment is significant, Lewiston Superintendent Jake Langlais said Friday, noting it will enable Lewiston schools to "add resources for mental health, for growing skills like emotional intelligence and further student engagement."
"These additional resources will help close the gap between what stability existed prior to the pandemic and the instability that ranges from self-harm, abuse at home, (and) stress that is unmanaged for many currently," Langlais said. "Healthy students and staff makes for a better learning environment and access to education."
In a news release, the Department of Education said it chose high-need districts which have low student-to-mental-health-provider ratios relative to the state and nation.
The program aims to help districts "increase student access to much-needed mental health services, and recruit, retain and re-specialize staff to support the mental health and well-being of students, staff, and families," it stated.
"We appreciate the conversation and opportunity to help support our students' social and emotional wellbeing and look forward to making the most of this opportunity," said RSU 54 Superintendent Jon Moody.
Notably, Langlais said, the funds can only be used to add staff and programs, not replace what exists.
"Supporting the mental health and well-being of our students is essential to making sure they thrive in the classroom and in their lives," Commissioner Pender Makin said. "These grants will help schools hire and retain the social workers, counselors and mental health providers they need to address student mental health needs, which have only grown during the pandemic."
In total, the Maine Department of Education earmarked $9 million for the program, funded by the 2022 federal Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.
"We at RSU 12 are pleased to partner with the Maine Department of Education through the Expanding Access to Supportive Environments in Maine Schools grant. This grant will allow us to build our capacity to hire, retain, and develop professionally qualified school-based mental health teams that reflect our community and provide us with much-needed professional development opportunities and technical assistance," said RSU 12 Superintendent Howard Tuttle. "Given the mental health challenges many of our students face, this grant couldn't have come at a more crucial time. We are truly excited about the possibilities and the positive impact this grant will have on our students and community."
From 2019 to 2021, the Maine Youth Integrated Health Survey recorded an increase in depression and suicidal thoughts among Maine teens.
Thirty percent of middle school students and 36% of high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless in the 2021 survey. About one in five middle and high school students reported that they had seriously considered attempting suicide.
Female and LGBTQ+ students in particular reported poor mental health.
According to a report by the Maine Children's Alliance released Tuesday, Maine's teen suicide rate has consistently been above the national average for at least the past decade.
From 2019 to 2022, visits to the emergency room for suicidal ideation or suicidal attempts increased by 19%, according to the report. A total of 2,654 visits were recorded by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2022.
"Our kids are hurting right now coming out of this pandemic," Langlais said at a School Committee meeting last month. "We cannot ignore that or we will see more students in terrible situations, incarceration, death. We're already seeing it."
"We will be meeting and discussing priorities with our district's social workers and counselors," RSU 73 Superintendent Scott Albert wrote in an email Sunday. "It is not only what the priorities are that need to be worked out, but availability of resources. Meaning we have openings now that we haven't been able to fill because of a shortage of qualified mental health workers.
"So just because we have more money available does not guarantee getting the help we need when we need it."