If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112.
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine – Jacob Poitraw has been asking for help coping with his mental illness for years, but lost the battle on Sunday when he died after police shot him.
Poitraw’s mother, Renee Duarte, remembered her son Thursday as an average child who wanted to help anyone in need.
Law enforcement officers searched Poitraw, 25, on Sunday after he threatened people with a rifle. He threatened police, led them in pursuit, rammed a cruiser several times, and was subsequently shot at, according to Presque Isle Police Chief Laurie Kelly. He had a history of burglary and probation violations and had served a prison sentence.
Duarte said a health care system thrown into chaos by COVID-19 could not offer his son the long-term help he needed. It’s a family story. Across Maine, hospitals reached their capacity at the start of the pandemic and stress has plagued healthcare workers and many others. Also with a shortage of hospital staff, people with mental and behavioral crises were put on a waiting list and put in the emergency room because there was no room for them elsewhere.
Mental health was named the top operational priority for Aroostook County in the Maine Shared Community Health Needs Assessment Report of 2022. Contributors to the report cited the lack of available providers, the use of emergency room for mental health care, long waiting lists and a high number of youth suicide attempts in the county.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reported in 2021 that 223,000 adults in Maine had a mental health condition. According to the alliance, of the 37.5% of Mainers who reported depression in February 2021, 13% were unable to receive necessary care.
Although society may have only viewed Poitraw as someone who was troubled and jailed multiple times, he was a kind and generous soul seeking help in his struggles with mental illness, his mother said.
Her son needed a year or two in the hospital for long-term care, Duarte said.
“I have been fighting for over two years. I called everyone there. I begged the system: ‘Please do something. My son will die if you don’t do something, ‘”Duarte said.
Originally from Presque Isle, Duarte lives in Hyde Park, Vermont. He was in Presque Isle the night Poitraw died. He had spoken to the Presque Isle Police Department on several occasions to ask his son for help, including on Sunday.
Police told her that Poitraw had called them and asked him to come in regarding the alleged firearm incident.
Duarte was working with the police to get him inside, he said. He described his son as a suicide, having lost two family members within a year.
His brother Thomas Poitraw Jr. died last year on June 2 of an accidental overdose as a result of chronic depression and addiction. The brothers’ father, Thomas Poitraw Sr., died on September 19, 2021.
“I didn’t want him to be hurt. I didn’t want any of the cops to get hurt, “he said.” He always told them he’d have him shot down, but he never pointed a gun.
Duarte said his son played with cars as a child and loved going to school. As a teenager, he had some trouble and began to struggle with mental illness, including depression. Eventually he got counseling.
The problem was that no one could offer him treatment long enough to completely deal with his depression and suicidal thoughts. Every doctor and specialist had an opinion and tried different drugs, which interacted with each other, Duarte said. Soon Jacob turned to illegal drugs for self-medication.
He and family members have contacted Aroostook Mental Health Services and Acadia Hospital in the past three years or so for treatment, but largely due to COVID-19 closures and backlogs, waiting lists were long.
Poitraw has attempted suicide multiple times in just over a year, his mother said. Four of those times he was alive. He would recover and the facilities would release him, he said she. Medical assessments once found him incompetent and he spent several weeks with Dorothea Dix in Bangor, but other than that, he received no long-term care.
“People with mental illness don’t want to be sick. And Jacob will try to be better. He knew he was sick, but he didn’t want to be in the hospital, ”his mother said.
Poitraw’s obituary reflected his struggle: “The family testifies how much Jacob tried every day to overcome his mental illness. There have been many times over the past few years, and particularly his last months and weeks of life, where he has sought mental help from providers and agencies and been denied services.
Poitraw had begun a turning point when he secured an apartment and a job, according to the obituary. He had also started going to church and was trying to mend relationships with loved ones.
Duarte said she has her daughter and a large network of family and friends around her for support. She finds solace in knowing what kind of person Poitraw was.
“Even through Jacob’s addiction and mental illness, you could see Jacob bringing food, water bottles, blankets and jackets to the homeless. This was, even during his addiction, the kind of person he was. “