Mental health and substance-related police calls are rising fast in Aroostook County|

8 months ago

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112.

FORT FAIRFIELD, Maine — Fort Fairfield police have seen more than a 50 percent rise in service calls over 2022, due mostly to mental health and substance use incidents, the town’s police chief said.

Chief Matthew Cummings told the Fort Fairfield Town Council Wednesday that the department has responded to 3,383 incidents since January. In the same period last year, there were 2,124 calls, an increase of 1,249.

The town is not alone. Police departments throughout Aroostook County are dealing with more mental health and substance use calls than ever. The lack of social workers and facilities in northern Maine is one reason. But COVID-19 aftereffects, increasing drug addiction and growing homelessness have escalated the problem, local police officials said. 

“We have training, but we’re certainly not licensed clinical social workers,” Cummings said. “It’s an issue. We need more services.”

Domestic violence and school incidents calls are also increasing, such as recent threats made to Fort Fairfield, Presque Isle and Topsham schools, Cummings said. 

And in the wake of Maine’s worst mass shooting in Lewiston on Oct. 25, Fort Fairfield police have stepped up patrols and also increased their presence around schools, providing emotional support for students, staff and parents, Cummings said.  

Mental health was a top priority in Aroostook County in the 2022 Maine Shared Community Health Needs Assessment Report. More providers and facilities to treat the suffering are needed, the document said.

Some Maine police departments are teaming up with social workers on mental health calls. The social workers try to deescalate people in crisis and to connect them with services. 

In 2022, Bangor launched a plan to send social workers on mental health calls instead of police. And as of last month, police in Brunswick, Topsham and Sagadahoc County can opt to take a mental health worker with them.  

Presque Isle police are finding success with Aroostook Mental Health Services’ Mobile Response, said Deputy Chief Chris Hayes. When police are faced with a mental health call, they request a social worker to accompany them or sometimes work with the person over the phone. 

“They have been an absolute blessing to us,” Hayes said. “At some point our plan is to actually have an office for them here at the police station.”

Presque Isle officers have seen about a 20 percent increase over the past year in mental health incidents alone, he said. There have been 881 specific mental health calls since January, and well over 120 more that are reported as something else but turn out to be mental health related.

There aren’t enough professionals and facilities to help the numbers of people suffering, he said. The pandemic exacerbated the situation. Facilities shut down temporarily or closed, and the numbers of people suffering grew exponentially.

Hayes attributed the increase to constantly growing homelessness, opioid addiction and mental health problems. It’s a perfect storm that has brought staffing issues everywhere, he said.

Caribou Police Chief Michael Gahagan agreed. 

“We’re finding that it’s either mental health with a substance abuse component, or substance abuse with a mental health component,” he said. “Also, everyone that we are seeing who is homeless has one or both of these issues.”

Though the city has logged fewer specific mental health calls than last year, that’s not really accurate, he said. Police may get a call categorized as a disturbance, but it could turn out to be a person needing mental health support. He declined to share specific numbers because he felt they wouldn’t provide a complete picture.

Police are dealing with more mental health calls for many reasons, Gahagan said. There aren’t enough social workers in northern Maine. Since the pandemic, state courts have been backed up and cases are delayed. Some people wait in hospitals for weeks because there are too few beds at treatment facilities statewide.

Caribou plans to join Presque Isle and other Maine departments in adding a social worker when it builds its new police station. Waterville, Sanford and Portland also have social workers embedded, and that trend is coming north, Gahagan said. 

Cummings would welcome the chance to get in on such a program, he said. Right now the department doesn’t have the funding or an arrangement with a mental health agency.

All three police officials said it will take time to figure out solutions.

And it isn’t just in Maine. Hayes is originally from Galway, Ireland, and has spoken to police there who are seeing the same struggle. 

“Nobody’s dropping the ball. Everybody is trying to do the best they possibly can,” Hayes said. “COVID did a lot more damage than just its devastating death toll. It broke everything.”