After U.S. Rep. Jared Golden publicly changed his mind on the need to ban assault weapons, Republicans, including potential rivals for his 2nd District congressional seat, said he was politicizing the Lewiston tragedy.
Maine Republican Party Chairman Joel Stetkis issued a statement saying “it is clear that many politicians are seeking to capitalize on this tragedy by pushing for sweeping changes to Maine’s laws.”
State Rep. Austin Theriault, who is among Golden’s Republican rivals, 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 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 investment in mental health care and access the country has ever seen,” Theriault promised.
That’s no small promise, and I’d really like to hear more about this plan.
Would that investment mean ensuring that everyone in Maine has access to health insurance that covers mental health? Or will mental health care simply be something the state provides? Will we raise taxes to pay for the investment? Does this 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? Will practitioners have to fight for approvals and reimbursement from private insurance companies? Or will the state provide a direct job subsidy to incentivize suppliers to come to Maine?
An annual report by the national nonprofit Mental Health America ranked Maine 26th in the nation — about in the middle, but worst in New England — for the prevalence of mental illness and lower rates of access to care as for youth and adults alike.
Maine ranks 42nd in the prevalence of mental illness among adults.
The 2023 survey also found that 53.5 percent, or 127,000, of Maine adults with any mental illness did not receive treatment, and 27.4 percent of them reported unmet need, meaning those who sought treatment but faced barriers to getting the help they needed. A reported 14.1% of Maine adults with some mental illness are uninsured.
To give an idea of how under-resourced Maine’s mental health system is right now, Betsy Sweet, a lobbyist who works on behalf of the Maine Behavioral Health Collaborative, said there are fewer than 100 mobile mental health crisis workers. which should cover the entire country 24/7.
To give an idea of how under-resourced Maine’s mental health system is right now, Betsy Sweet, a lobbyist who works on behalf of the Maine Behavioral Health Collaborative, said there are fewer than 100 mobile mental health crisis workers. which should cover the entire country 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 who live in one of the more rural areas of the state, “you have to drive two hours, not just for your crisis, but if you want to go to a regular appointment once a month.”
Sweet estimated that a fully funded mental health system in Maine would require $50-$100 million in ongoing funding annually. The budget passed last year included a one-time investment of $20 million for behavioral health services, but, as Sweet noted, that “doesn’t even get us to the baseline of what’s needed with the lack of funding over the last two decades.”
Because the truth is that underinvestment in mental health has largely been a political decision, and in Maine it stems largely from the actions of the GOP and the administration of former Governor 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 accede to the will of voters and the Legislature and expand Medicaid.
A huge investment in our mental health system is desperately needed, but it will not be built overnight. Not only do you need funding, training and infrastructure, but you also need to convince your uncle Frank that it’s okay to talk to someone when they’re feeling sad and angry.
But there are options for more urgent reforms. Some states have enacted policies to try to prevent the kind of mass death that happened here last week, such as state-level bans on assault rifles, background checks and actual red flag laws that ensure that people deemed dangerous to themselves or others, do not have access to deadly weapons. Even with all of these policies in place, it will not infringe on the ability of a trained, law abiding person to own any number of guns to hunt deer or defend their home or exercise their 2nd Amendment right.
And while the entire country is crying out for protection from gun violence, as Golden noted in his follow-up interview with the Bangor Daily News , it also won’t happen immediately nationally, with our divided government (which really can’t agree on color in the sky).
But Mainers are pushing for action, and with the Democratic trifecta, it’s possible that state leaders will call a special session and pass something within weeks to ensure that the terrible, terrible loss that so many people are experiencing right now will never repeated itself.
Lauren McCauley is editor of the Maine Morning Star, part of the State Newsroom Network. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own comment, here.