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Staff Shortages Threaten Mental-Health System for Basic Services

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A recent juvenile-justice task force found that many youths are in detention because of a lack of community-based alternatives and wait lists for existing programs. (Chatiyanon/Adobestock)
A recent juvenile-justice task force found that many youths are in detention because of a lack of community-based alternatives and wait lists for existing programs. (Chatiyanon/Adobestock)
 By Suzanne Potter - Producer, Contact
May 25, 2021

AUGUSTA, Maine -- With about three weeks left in the legislative session, mental-health advocates want lawmakers to increase the funding for essential MaineCare services in order to attract more badly needed staff.

Experts contended long waiting lists often mean families can't get counseling and end up in crisis.

Amy Cohan, vice president of outpatient and community services for Spurwink Services and a licensed clinical social worker, said at times there have been as many as 500 families waiting for in-home counseling, especially people who live away from the I-95 corridor.

"Insufficient rates make it really impossible for providers to travel to families' homes, particularly in rural parts of the state, in a financially sustainable way," Cohan explained.

Cohan noted during the pandemic, calls to hotlines, rates of anxiety and depression, suicidal thinking and suicides all rose sharply. In addition, opioid overdoses increased to record levels, reversing progress made in recent years.

Multiple bills, including Legislative Document 432 and Legislative Document 1173, which are intended to address the situation, are waiting to get a vote. Lawmakers need to finalize the budget before the session ends on June 16.

Opponents objected to the cost of raising providers' pay, but supporters countered it's crucial in order to attract more people to the social-services profession.

Rep. Colleen Madigan, D-Waterville, co-sponsored several bills to help alleviate some pressure.

"There needs to be more money put into put state now so that kids can stay at home," Madigan asserted. "They can be treated in their communities, and they can get the behavioral health care they need before they wind up in an emergency room or needing inpatient hospitalization or residential care."

Madigan pointed out many programs have been forced to cut services for lack of staff, leaving families no option but to send their children out of state to find a residential placement.

David McCluskey, executive director of Community Care, a nonprofit that treats people with mental illness, said the staff shortages translate into a broken system that causes real suffering for families.

"So there's people who are waiting to leave psychiatric hospitals because there's no place for them to step down to," McCluskey stressed. "And then there's also people waiting to get into hospitals. And so the system is sort of frozen."

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