Miia Zellner, an artist who teaches in nearby Turner, made about a dozen or so cardboard hearts and nailed them to trees along Main Street Lewiston a day after the Oct. 25 mass shooting. (Emma Davis/Maine Morning Star)
After U.S. Rep. Jared Golden’s public change of heart over the need for an assault weapons ban, Republicans, including potential rivals for his 2nd District congressional seat, said he was politicizing the tragedy in Lewiston.
Maine GOP chair Joel Stetkis issued a statement saying “it is clear that many politicians are seeking to capitalize on this tragedy by pushing for radical changes to Maine laws.”
State Rep. Austin Theriault, who is among Golden’s Republican challengers, said the Democratic congressman was trying to “score political points by attacking the 2nd Amendment.”
Theriault, who represents Fort Kent in the legislature, also said that we are seeing the “consequences of our political inaction” to “invest in the people who are struggling the most.”
“I’m calling for the largest-ever investment in mental health care and access that the country has ever seen,” Theriault vowed.
That is no small promise, and I would genuinely love to hear more about this plan.
Would that investment mean making sure everyone in Maine has access to health insurance that covers mental health? Or would mental health care just be something the state provides? Would we raise taxes to pay for the investment? Would this also include substance use treatment? Would we forgive student loans for people interested in pursuing a master’s degree in social work, psychiatry or mental health counseling? Would practitioners have to fight for approvals and reimbursements from private insurance companies? Or would the state provide a direct subsidy for the work to incentivize providers to come to Maine?
An annual report by national nonprofit Mental Health America ranks Maine 26th in the nation—smack in the middle, but the worst in New England—in terms of prevalence of mental illness and lower rates of access to care for both youth and adults.
Maine ranks 42nd in terms of prevalence of mental illness for adults.
The 2023 study also found that 53.5%, or 127,000, of adults with any mental illness in Maine did not receive treatment and 27.4% of them reported an unmet need, meaning those who sought treatment but faced barriers to getting the help they needed. A reported 14.1% of adults in Maine with any mental illness are uninsured.
To get a sense of how under-resourced Maine’s mental health system is currently, Betsy Sweet, a lobbyist who works on behalf of the Behavioral Health Collaborative in Maine, said there are less than 100 mobile mental health crisis workers, who are required to cover the entire state 24/7. There is a seven to eight month waiting list to get an appointment to see a psychiatrist, clinical social worker, or therapist. For those living in one of the more rural areas of the state, “you need to drive two hours, not just for your crisis, but if you want to go in for a regular appointment once a month.”
Sweet estimated that a fully resourced mental health system in Maine would require ongoing funding of $50-100 million a year. The budget passed last year included a one-time investment of $20 million for behavioral health services but, as Sweet noted, that “did not even get us to the baseline of what’s needed with the lack of funding over the past two decades.”
Because, the truth is, the underinvestment in mental health has very much been a political decision, and in Maine it stems in large part from the actions of the Republican Party and administration of former Gov. Paul LePage. Together, LePage and the GOP slashed the budget of the Department of Health and Human Services, kicked low-income people off Medicaid, and refused to acquiesce to the will of voters and the legislature and expand Medicaid.
A massive investment in our mental health care system is sorely needed, but won’t be built overnight. Not only do you need the funding, the training, and the infrastructure, but you also need to convince your Uncle Frank that it’s OK to talk to someone when he is feeling sad and angry.
But there are options for more urgent reforms. Some states have implemented policies to try to prevent the sort of mass death that happened here last week, such as state-level assault rifle bans, background checks, and actual red flag laws that ensure that people deemed dangerous to themselves or others cannot access lethal weapons. Even with all those policies in place, it would not impinge on the ability of a trained, law-abiding person to own any number of guns to hunt deer or protect their home or exercise their 2nd Amendment right.
And even though the entire country is crying for protection from gun violence, as Golden noted in his subsequent interview with the Bangor Daily News, that too won’t happen immediately on the national level, with our split government (which truly can’t agree on the color of the sky).
But Mainers are demanding action and with a Democratic trifecta it’s possible that state leaders could call a special session and pass something in a matter of weeks, to ensure that the terrible, terrible loss felt by so many people right now never happens again.
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