Maine Schools Respond to Anxiety Epidemic

MDOE awarded $5.5 million grant to support mental health initiative in schools

by Krista Nadeau

Anxiety is a major problem in the United States and the number of people suffering is growing. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) anxiety affects approximately 18 percent of people nationwide and impacts people both young and old. 

Statistics indicate Maine has the highest rate of children diagnosed with anxiety in the country. Even though the numbers are going down, Maine is still above national averages. In response, Maine schools are taking action to support the mental wellbeing of children in the classroom.

According to The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), “1 in 4 Maine children has at least one mental health disorder.” Anxiety is one of those disorders.  The US Census Bureau reports that “of the 18 million students enrolled in college, 3 out of 4 indicated that they have experienced overwhelming anxiety at some point.” These health concerns know no boundaries and are impacting all demographics.  At the root, anxiety is often caused by long term chronic stress that manifests into overwhelming worry and fear.  

Social emotional learning, or SEL, gives a person the tools to appropriately recognize emotions, strengths, limitations, actions and to understand how the response to these can affect those around them.  According to the Committee for Children, “​research shows that early and continued SEL instruction can be highly beneficial for kids. Its long-lasting effects help lower rates of depression and anxiety​ ​and decrease risky behavior such as drug use and drop-outs, and can reduce violent behavior and criminality.”  

When faced with stress and anxiety, people can cope in two different ways. Maladaptive coping skills result in negative mental and emotional wellbeing and include choosing drinking and/or drugs, compulsions or risk-taking, and escaping or withdrawing as a means of dealing with a problem. For many, useful, adaptive coping skills were never taught. These are not skills people are born with, they have to be learned. They include skills such as talking about things, relaxation techniques, identifying and addressing stress triggers, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Anxiety can be magnified during transitions in life; going from childhood to adulthood, juggling heavy workloads at school while working and participating in extracurricular activities, and even more life events as we age. Stress in our world can be constant. It’s never too early or too late to learn resiliency and adaptability, two skills needed in life.  Learning social-emotional intelligence can enhance a person’s ability to succeed in school, careers, and in life.

Tyler Tracy is a health teacher at Poland Regional High School and says he sees students struggling with anxiety every day. He says there are specific health standards in the curriculum that educate students on adaptive coping skills. He says those skills are more important now than ever. 

“Health surveys at our school indicate that 30 percent of our students have felt helpless at least one time in the last two weeks, a statistic that saddens me,” Tracy said. He added, “Students feel alone, but they aren’t.”  

In response to that, Tracy says a lot of time is spent around community building both peer to peer and peer to teacher. Tracy encourages his students to check in with one another and ask each other how things are going in a non-judgmental way.  

“Kids are more accepting now than any other time,” he added. In addition to teaching self-management skills, Tracy also teaches his students about valid and reliable health resources, how to anticipate and manage situations, and the impact of stressors on the body. While he teaches at the high school level he said teaching self-management skills in the younger years is critical. 

“There needs to be a lot of focus on mental wellbeing,” he said. 

The Maine Department of Education (MDOE), in collaboration with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Office of Child and Family Services (OCFS), aims to bring that kind of teaching to Maine schools. In 2018, the Maine Department of Education was awarded a five and a half million dollar grant to support a student health initiative to tackle the crisis.  

Prior to the application, three school units, Calais School Department, RSU 40/Waldoboro, and RSU 10/Rumford were chosen as pilot locations based on their representation of challenges Maine’s schools face. Funding will go towards a program called Maine-AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education), which is a tiered program that builds students’ mental health and resiliency by giving all students access to school and community support and positive behavioral strategies. Team-based community and school support will be provided to those families identified as at risk. For youth and families experiencing serious or mental health disorders, targeted clinical interventions will be provided.  

According to the department, the project will promote positive behavior and implement social-emotional learning in the classroom.  The Maine-AWARE program ensures that all students have access to social-emotional strategies. They believe that support, combined with universal behavioral health screenings can help schools and communities focus on the students that need the most help, keeping them from falling through the cracks. 

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