AUGUSTA — An area mental health and substance abuse agency recently launched a counseling program for teens and children to provide for what its clinicians say is an underserved need in the central Maine area.

The program, available for children ages 3 to 17 at Crisis & Counseling Centers’ Augusta office and at the Children’s Center in Augusta, aims to give participants the skills to deal with mental health and behavior issues before they worsen.

So far, clinicians have added 16 children to their caseloads since the program’s inception late last summer, according Courtney Yeager, the public relations and marketing coordinator for the agency.

Alyssa Audie, one of the program’s leading clinicians, said counseling help for children is more common in southern Maine, but there are fewer resources in Kennebec and Somerset counties. She said clinicians in the program see children for problems such as depression, low self-esteem, trauma, anger management, behavioral problems and challenges with change.

“The goal is to prepare them so it doesn’t impact their adulthood,” Audie said.

A recent statewide survey indicates that middle and high school students increasingly are struggling with depression.

The survey found that 14.6 percent of high school students and 16.8 percent of seventh- and eighth-grade students have considered attempting suicide, up from 12.7 percent of high school students and 14.5 percent of seventh- and eighth-graders in 2011. Slightly higher percentages were reported in Kennebec County.

The Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, based on anonymous responses from 63,000 public school students in grades five through 12, is a collaboration between the Maine Department of Education and the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. It has been conducted every other year since 2009.

Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention at DHHS, said the increase from 2011 is statistically significant, but what caused it isn’t clear.

Reports of students being bullied at school also increased, but Pinette said a direct causal relationship between bullying and suicide hasn’t been proved.

Suicidal risk factors can include a lack of bonding with family members, lack of support from parents, destructive family relationships, violence, bullying and not feeling well liked, Pinette said.

The survey also found a significantly higher percentage of girls than boys reporting that they’ve considered suicide — especially in middle school, where 22.4 percent of girls reported it compared to 11.5 percent of boys.

The higher number for girls isn’t surprising, Pinette said, because girls are more likely than boys to go to the emergency rooms with failed suicide attempts. Boys are more likely to be successful in their attempts, she said.

Pinette said the state took positive action on suicide prevention last year by passing a law requiring all school staffers to participate in suicide prevention training and by winning a federal grant for suicide prevention services for youths under the age of 24.

Gov. Paul LePage signed the bill into law and donated $44,000 from his contingency fund to support expanded training, according to the department.

The survey did find good news about alcohol and cigarette use. The percentage of high school students who reported having had at least one drink of alcohol in their lifetime and the percentage of those who reported smoking cigarettes at least once in the previous 30 days both decreased.

Bob Long, administrator for substance abuse services at Kennebec Behavioral Health’s Augusta office, said there have been federal and state efforts to do more for substance abuse prevention and mental health treatment for adolescents, but he thinks more should be done to get early substance abuse prevention and treatment services to youths in user-friendly ways.

Kennebec Behavioral Health, which is based in Waterville, was one of two agencies chosen for a federal grant the state received last year to provide those services, Long said. Part of the funding helps put substance abuse counselors in area schools, he said.

“The earlier you can intervene, the higher the probability you can prevent it from going further; and if you can do that, brain development is less injured or impaired,” Long said.

That’s also the thinking for the youth counseling program at Crisis & Counseling Centers, Audie said. “You don’t have to wait till you’re an adult to work out your mental health issues. Kids are just as easily prone to mental health issues as adults are,” she said.

“The more quickly we can put those skills in place, the less likely they’re going to impact them the rest of their lives,” Audie added.

Paul Koenig — 621-5663pkoenig@centralmaine.comTwitter: @paul_koenig