by Rachel Ohm Morning Sentinel
FARMINGTON — Physical activity, access to health care and environmental conditions are among the top priorities when it comes to the health of Franklin County residents, a group of community members and stakeholders recently found.
Substance use and mental health are also important priorities, the group found during a forum at Mt. Blue High School called to draw attention to a new report on the health of Franklin County residents and what can be done to improve conditions.
The report, called the Franklin County Health Profile, identified obesity among high school students, and poor physical and mental health for adults as being among problems that are getting worse in the county.
It was compiled by the Maine Shared Community Health Needs Assessment, a partnership of five different public and private health entities, and analyzes almost 200 different health data points to show changes over time.
The report was also the launching point for a discussion in late October about what health factors should be the focus of organizations in the community, like local hospitals, schools and nonprofits.
“It’s really important for our community to be involved,” said Andrea Richards, lead program and planning coordinator for the Healthy Community Coalition of Franklin County, one of five groups that hosted the forum. “That’s why we try to get as many people there as possible. When we’re in the field we see and hear these things going on, but we’re also wondering what people not in the field are concerned with, what’s in their lives that we might not see or know about.”
According to the report, the number of high school students in Franklin County who are obese has jumped from 10.3 percent in 2011 to 17.7 percent in 2017. At the same time, the number of students who reported feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks in a row jumped from 19.7 percent in 2011 to 26.2 percent in 2017.
It also showed that 27 percent of adults in the county reported 14 or more days of poor physical health in the last 30 days and 27 percent reported 14 or more days of poor mental health. In comparison, 19 percent of adults statewide reported 14 or more poor physical health days and 16 percent reported 14 or more poor mental health days.
Even so, Franklin County is doing better than the rest of the state in several areas of substance and alcohol use, the report found.
From 2012 to 2016, Franklin County averaged 8.8 overdose deaths per 100,000 residents, compared to a statewide average of 18.1.
An average of 8.8 drug-induced deaths were reported in Franklin County compared to 18.9 for the state.
However, Richards said that doesn’t mean that drug use is not a problem in Franklin County.
“Sometimes, we still have to think about these things,” she said. ‘The data presented may not be as high as some areas, but it’s still a problem and it needs to be addressed before it becomes a larger problem.”
When it comes to childhood obesity, Richards said there are many explanations for why it might be on the rise, including poverty and a more sedentary lifestyle among young people.
“We’re living in an age where there are a lot fewer social gatherings of kids,” she said. “Today, kids are often on social media rather than with their friends in person, so I’m sure that has something to do with it. It is something we noticed — those higher rates — and it’s certainly something we realize we need to do some work around.”
Two years ago, when the community hosted a similar discussion on health, obesity was identified as a top concern for the county, along with substance use, access to care and poverty.
Since then, representatives of the Healthy Community Coalition said they and other groups in Franklin County have taken steps to address the concern, including through things like implementing the use of food stamps at farmers markets and bringing the national Let’s Go! program, which focuses on preventing childhood obesity, to schools and day cares.
With the priorities set last week — physical activity, social determinants of health, access to care, substance use and mental health — Richards said the Franklin Community Health Network, community coalition and other groups will be setting strategic priorities around them.
“I’m interested in seeing where we’re at with health stuff,” said Hailey Mealey, 22, a student at the University of Maine at Farmington who was among those attending the forum. “I think mental health, alcohol and substance use should be priorities just because I’ve seen a lot of problems with that.”
John Berto, 69, of New Portland, also attended the forum to learn more about the health of local communities. He said he used to work at his wife’s family medical practice, so he learned a lot talking to patients.
“I also ran for the legislature, and you learn a lot going door to door,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of changes for the opposite of good.”