Measures of Growth Indicator in Action: Mental & Behavioral Health

Mental and behavioral health is key to an individual’s ability to thrive and prosper, and thus to Maine’s economy. As we mark Mental Health Awareness Month, there is reason to hope amidst the sobering reality of what many medical professionals call a “crisis” in mental health and the accompanying “epidemic of loneliness.” 

The most recent edition of Measures of Growth highlighted the stark data: In 2021, 36% of Maine high schoolers – more than 1 in 3 – reported feeling sad or hopeless every day for two weeks or more. Many older Mainers are also experiencing challenges. In July-August 2023, approximately 27% of Maine adults had symptoms of anxiety or depression. By comparison, about 33% of adults nationwide reported these symptoms—up from just 11% in 2019.  

Fortunately, Maine also has an abundance of one of the most powerful tools to address and overcome this challenge: access to nature and free outdoor endeavors.  

Among the many organizations working to engage Mainers in nature is Teens to Trails. They work with middle and high schools around the state to start and sustain Outdoor Clubs, which are student-led and faculty-facilitated. The Clubs introduce teenagers to a variety of experiences, such as hiking, biking, camping, rafting, rock climbing, canoeing, kayaking, campfires, and beach trips. The goal is to try new things, see new places, and make new connections.  

Teens to Trails also runs programs that are independent of schools and offer a way for teens to connect with others from across the state in outdoor adventures. As the group emphasizes on its website, “Watching trees sway in the wind, breathing fresh air, and listening to bird calls – positively activates our senses, elevates our moods, and calms our nervous systems. Research shows spending time outside improves individual mental health outcomes later in life.” 

17-year-old Eva Dodge, a student at the Ecology Learning Center in Unity, spoke at MDF’s 2023 Annual Meeting & Champion Awards Celebration of the life-changing experiences she had during a 3-week Teens to Trails kayak trip in the summer of 2023. It included solo time for reflection. During one such session while fogged in on an island off the coast, Eva worked with the writing prompt “Who Am I Here?” She wrote a poem that reads, in part: 

It is the epitome of what psychologists, behavioralists, educators, community leaders, and employers seek to foster daily in their efforts to support the mental and behavioral health of individuals, students, and employees. “There are so many ways to change a life through outdoor experiences and to offer hope along with a sense of belonging. We don’t always know it is happening in the moment, but the impact can be lifelong,” says Alicia Heyburn, Executive Director, Teens to Trails. 

The Need for Continued Diligence 

Mental & Behavioral Health is just one of the indicators the Maine Economic Growth Council, the nonpartisan, independent group that oversees the Measures of Growth report, uses to track factors that make Maine communities desirable, healthy, and supportive places to live, work, and play. This annual report offers a snapshot of how these factors intersect with Maine’s economy, and why the Council recommends continued diligence on these fronts.  

 We hope you will dig into the data behind these Indicators and how they interconnect with other critical elements of Maine’s economy. Visit the Measures of Growth section of our website where you can see all 31 indicators we featured in 2023, as well as past issues of the report dating back to 2010.