Students at 18 school districts in Maine may have less mental health support next year after a nonprofit providing long-term therapy announced it can’t afford to keep current staffing levels.

Sweetser, a behavioral health organization, had 80-school based clinicians working with more than 2,300 children in 100 public schools during the last school year. It’s a service many school officials say students desperately need because the state is reaching a crisis point in youth mental health challenges, and school counselors and social workers need the additional support nonprofits like Sweetser provide.

Sweetser’s decision to scale back services comes after the program ran a $1.5 million deficit this fiscal year, said CEO and President Jayne Van Bramer. She said the nonprofit doesn’t want to cut in-school services, but providing them has become financially unsustainable.

Their school-based clinicians spend their days driving between schools, meeting with students, teachers, guidance counselors and social workers, calling parents, filling out paperwork and performing a variety of other tasks. But because they get paid by billing students’ insurance, they are only paid for face-to-face time with clients in therapy sessions. That billing system is unsustainable, Van Bramer said.

She would not say which school districts would lose services and to what extent – the organization is just beginning to have discussions with superintendents about changes to services.

“It was a very, very difficult decision, and know we are working very hard to minimize the impact it will have on our students, our families and of course our staff,” Van Bramer said.



Youth across Maine continue to struggle with serious mental health challenges, and school officials say students need significant support.

According to the 2023 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, more than one-third of Maine middle and high school students are struggling with depression, almost one-quarter have physically harmed themselves in their lifetimes, almost 20% have seriously considered suicide, around 16% made a plan, and 8% attempted suicide.

Those numbers are higher than 10 years ago, when 23% of Maine middle and high school students were struggling with depression, 17% practiced self-harm, 16% seriously contemplated suicide, 12% made a plan and 7% made an attempt, according to the same survey in 2013.

“Students in Maine and the nation are experiencing significant mental health challenges,” said Brunswick Superintendent Phil Potenziano. “We have a long way to go to ensure our students are getting the support they need to be successful.”

At the same time, student homelessness has risen, and school leaders say they have more students than ever who are experiencing anxiety, struggling socially and acting out.


Maine Children’s Alliance Senior Policy Analyst Rita Furlow said providing mental health services in a school setting is important because it provides easy access from a familiar face and allows kids to get support as early as possible.

“Having someone available in the school could mean the difference between (a student) taking the opportunity to speak with someone right away versus trying to schedule an appointment two weeks out,” said Furlow.

Van Bramer said that having clinicians in school buildings allows adults in a student’s life to collaborate, problem-solve and create a blanket of support for the student.

This is especially notable as wait times for mental health support across Maine continue to rise.


In this year’s legislative session, lawmakers took up a bill that would have devoted $2.7 million over two years to help schools hire social workers and family therapists through organizations like Sweetser. The bill was approved in initial votes in the House and the Senate – but never funded.


Van Bramer said Sweetser is regrouping and intends to push for new legislation in January that would change the way clinicians are reimbursed for providing in-school services and allow them to be paid for work that does not involve direct contact with clients.

She said it’s in the best interest of kids for schools to be able to offer as wide a range of mental health supports as possible.

“Everyone has seen the increase in youth mental health issues,” she said. “There is need, and this program works.”

School districts often offer mental health support to students through school counselors and social workers. But they often have large caseloads and therefore limited time.

Clinicians, such as those who work for Sweetser, provide an additional layer of mental health support and work with students and their families on complex, long-term issues.

All of Sweetser’s clinicians must have a master’s degree in either social work, psychology or mental health counseling. Maine requires school counselors to have a master’s in school counseling, and social workers must have a master’s in social work.


Potenziano, the Brunswick superintendent, said Sweetser’s reduction of services is disappointing because student mental health needs are so high, but since COVID-19, the district has hired additional school counselors and social workers and has signed agreements with other local providers and independent social workers to maintain in-depth mental health support.

Potenziano hopes the district will be able to put additional services in place if Sweetser does pull back services at Brunswick schools.

Van Bramer said it’s crucial that nonprofits like Sweetser are able to provide long-term mental health support to students.

“By investing in our youth and addressing these issues now, we can prevent the more serious mental health challenges and more expensive forms of treatment that would happen later on,” she said.

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