For Mainers recovering from a mental health problem, peer centers can offer a place to socialize and provide critical support. A year ago, Androscoggin County, home to Maine’s second-largest city, lost both of its mental health peer centers, and those who had used them say the loss has had an isolating effect in their community.
Peer centers are different from other mental health programs because they’re less structured and they’re free. It’s a place to do group activities, learn life skills or just sit and chat with others.
When Vickie Morgan started coming to the peer center in Lewiston about three years ago, she says she finally found a place where she felt she belonged.
“I could just let my guard down and talk to people about, ‘You having a bad day? I understand.’” she says. “I could connect with these people better than my family and my other friends.”
Morgan has chronic depression and anxiety disorder. She goes to therapy, but says those sessions focus on her past. At the peer center, she says, she concentrated on her future.
Morgan liked the experience so much, she started volunteering at the center, doing outreach and scheduling activities. She says she went from feeling worthless to feeling useful.
“Volunteering has really been the big thing for me. It’s really turned my life around,” she says.
But that peer center abruptly closed last September. The state had put out a bid request for peer center services, and the parent organization of the Lewiston center — Common Ties — didn’t submit A bid.
Sweetser, a mental health care organization, made a bid for a Lewiston location, but CEO Deb Taylor says it was rejected due to a technicality.
“We did pursue the avenue of a basic appeal. The appeal was denied. And at that time, we let it rest,” she says.
“There are awards of, I think, 11 peer centers across the state of Maine. There’s actually even two in the Bangor area. But there is not one in the Lewiston area,” says Simonne Maline, executive director of the Consumer Council System of Maine, a policy advocacy group for people with mental illness.
A peer center in Livermore Falls also lost its bid to stay open, so Androscoggin County now doesn’t have any.
“Which means there’s a large segment of mental health folks living there, and they don’t have access to the low-barrier peer support programming that used to be in the Lewiston area for decades,” Maline says.
The Consumer Council filed a formal issue statement with Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services in September, outlining its concerns. The group asked the department to convene a stakeholder group to create a plan to restore peer support services in Lewiston.
“Most centers run on $100,000 or $200,000 for a whole year to serve an entire community. So in the whole scheme of things, the department probably could find those funds,” Maline says.
She says there are other options as well. But she’s frustrated because it has been nearly three months, and she says DHHS has not responded.
“We’re willing to do the work alongside with them, but they have to be willing to come to the table and have those conversations with us,” Maline says.
The department did not respond to a request for comment. As the Consumer Council System waits for a response, those who used the former Lewiston peer center say the loss is still palpable.
“I have major depression. I have a tendency to isolate. And that’s why it was so helpful and beneficial to me,” says Mike Lee, who went to the peer center both as a client and in his former role as a peer support specialist for a local mental health organization.
Lee says he brought others to the peer center almost every day.
“They’d be there all day long. It was their life. It was huge. It was that big for them. It was totally life-changing for a lot of these folks,” he says.
For many, Lee says, the peer center provided the first major step toward recovery.