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Money Woes Doom Brunswick Program for Mentally Ill

There is one place in Maine where individuals with mental illness can stay overnight, surrounded by peer support, when they're in emotional distress. The Learning and Recovery Center in Brunswick serves as an alternative to emergency rooms and crisis centers. But after 10 years, the Center will close at the end of June due to a lack of funding. Some advocates fear the trend could continue.

The Learning and Recovery Center offers peer services to those with mental illness. That means everyone who works at the center has struggled with mental wellness.

The center is run by Sweetser, a behavioral health organization, and Director of Peer Services Ron Welch says the Center was opened a decade ago in response to what clients said was missing from standard mental health treatment: "Skill training, and basic food preparation, and vocational pursuits," he says. All of that - and socialization skills - all of that is what happens here."

A thousand people a year use the center. By day, a few dozen drop in for activities, or just to chat. By night, it's a place where people in emotional distress can stay in one of three respite beds. Their stay usually lasts from three to five days, and is self-directed. Individuals have to call first and tell staff their goals.

"We get demand for this service from all over," Welch says.

But the Learning and Recovery Center is set to close on June 30 "because it's just become unsustainable for us to continue funding the program," says Stephanie Hanner, a spokesperson for Sweetser.

Hanner says the center operates on a combination of funding from Sweetser and state grant funds. She says state funding has remained level at $200,000 a year, while Sweetser's contribution has doubled.

"Our costs began at the inception of the program - around $40,000 a year - and they've now blossomed to around $90,000 a year."

Hanner says Sweetser had told Maine's Department of Health and Human Services that it couldn't sustain the $90,000 cost, and asked for $50,000 in additional state funding. But in mid-May, the state responded by saying that it would not allocate more money.

In a written statement, DHHS spokesperson John Martins says the department cannot justify providing additional funding to a program that was under-spending in its current contract by more than $40,000. Further, Martins says, Sweetser wanted to revamp the program, which would have required a competitive bidding process.

While DHHS says it will help transition those who use the center to other services, Jenna Mehnert, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Maine, says the closing of the center is part of a troubling trend: the combination of cuts to both state grant dollars and MaineCare coverage.

"So we have a crisis in terms of, how do people get access to care, and how do good programs continue to operate?" Mehnert says. "This won't be the only program that closes in Maine if we don't change something soon."

Stephanie Hanner of Sweetser says when the Learning and Recovery Center closes, its services will not be replicated at any other location.