DHHS Intensifies Support for Health and Safety During Current Phase of the COVID-19 Pandemic

June 23, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has directly affected millions worldwide and over 68,000 people in Maine. But its impact is much larger given its indirect effects on families and public health. Evidence from across the country documents heightened mental health issues due to the pandemic, including among parents and children. Some reports suggest that domestic and interpersonal violence have increased. There was a large spike in the number of new gun owners during the pandemic, creating concerns about firearm safety. The American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, published a study finding that children ages 12 years and younger had a significantly higher risk of both incurring and inflicting a firearm injury during the COVID-19 pandemic, as compared to before the pandemic. And numerous signs show an increase in substance use disorders. While final data for 2020 have yet to be released, the U.S. CDC reports that the rate of fatal drug overdoses accelerated during the pandemic.

Maine has not been spared these secondary public health effects of the pandemic. New data released by the Office of the Maine Attorney General show a record high number of drug overdoses in 2020. The new monthly data also show that 2021 is on track to have a higher number of overdoses than 2020.

This is why the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is announcing that it will intensify its work to help Maine residents tackle these new pandemic-related challenges. First, it will extend and expand the scope of the StrengthenME initiative. StrengthenME offers free stress management, wellness and resiliency resources to anyone experiencing emotional challenges in response to the pandemic. Through partner agencies, the program offers emotional first aid and wellness education sessions to individuals or groups, tailored to different communities to best meet their needs.

While StrengthenME was originally scheduled to wind down with the decline in COVID-19 cases, the uptick in other pandemic-induced health concerns has changed this plan. Through a federal grant extension, StrengthenME will continue through May of 2022. Maine DHHS has also secured additional Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Emergency COVID grant funding, now totaling $4.85 million which will be used to expand StrengthenME and mental health crisis service capacity. Separate federal Mental Health Block Grant supplements will largely be invested in new crisis services and early intervention for serious mental illness.

In addition to the extension, StrengthenME will bolster its resources for people with substance use disorders and potential risk of interpersonal violence. In May, the majority of people using StrengthenME services were struggling with past substance use/mental health problems and/or trauma. The team staffing StrengthenME will be equipped with more tools to support people with these challenges. Additionally, StrengthenME will add support for firearm safety in response to the increase in new gun owners nationally coupled with heightened concerns about suicide in this period of time.

If you or someone you know is looking for support, call (207) 221-8198, seven days a week, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. StrengthenME is free, confidential, anonymous, and available to anyone in Maine.

Second, DHHS will continue to expand the OPTIONS initiative. OPTIONS uses intensive outreach to engage communities with high rates of drug overdoses to promote harm reduction strategies, connect people directly to recovery services and treatment, and distribute naloxone, the lifesaving overdose medication. It has grown to serve Maine people in all 16 counties through 14 liaisons. The OPTIONS campaign provides targeted messaging to people who use substances and their support systems regarding treatment and recovery resources, safer use practices, naloxone, the importance of calling 911 when an overdose is suspected and protections under the Good Samaritan Law.

These expanding initiatives are important components of the transformative work on behavioral health outlined in the Behavioral Health Plan for Maine. This includes $86 million in proposed investments in behavioral health services currently before the Maine Legislature as part of the Governor’s Part 2 Budget to support prevention, early intervention, harm reduction, all levels of treatment, crisis care, and recovery assistance.

For information about substance use disorder support and resources, call 211, text your zip code to 898-211, email info@211Maine.org, visit the Maine 211 website, or visit the DHHS Office of Behavioral Health’s website for COVID-19 behavioral health resources and information on substance use disorder services.