Mother says mental health system has failed Almost Isle man killed in police shooting

If you are having a mental health crisis, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Jacob Poitraw sought help to cope with his mental illness for years, but lost his battle on Sunday when he died after police shot him.

Poitraw’s mother, Renee Duarte, remembered her son on Thursday as an average kid who wanted to help anyone in need.

Law enforcement sought Poitraw, 25, on Sunday after he allegedly threatened people with a gun. He threatened police, led them into a chase, rammed a cruiser multiple times and was later shot, according to Près Isle Police Chief Laurie Kelly. He had a history of burglary and probation violations and had served time in prison.

Duarte said a healthcare system thrown into chaos by COVID-19 couldn’t get his son the long-term help he needed. It’s a familiar story. Across Maine, hospitals reached capacity early in the pandemic, and stress plagued healthcare workers and many others. Also with the shortage of hospital staff, people with mental and behavioral crises were put on waiting lists and kept in the emergency room because there was no room for them elsewhere.

Mental health was named the top priority for Aroostook County operations in Maine’s 2022 Shared Community Health Needs Assessment Report. Contributors to the report cited lack of available providers, service utilization mental health care emergencies, 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 reporting depression in February 2021, 13% were unable to receive necessary care.

Although society may have only seen Poitraw as someone who was troubled and had been incarcerated multiple times, he was a kind and generous soul who sought help for his struggles with mental illness, said his mother.

Her son needed a year or two in a hospital for long-term treatment, Duarte said.

“I have been fighting for over two years now. I called everyone. I begged the system, ‘Please do something. My son is going to die if you don’t do something,” Duarte said.

A native of Près Isle, Duarte lives in Hyde Park, Vermont. She was at Près Isle the night Poitraw died. She had spoken with the Près Isle Police Department several times to get help for her son, including on Sunday.

The police told him that Poitraw had called them and they asked him to come regarding the alleged firearm incident.

Duarte was working with the police to get him in, she said. She described her son as suicidal, having lost two family members in a year.

His brother Thomas Poitraw Jr. died last year on June 2 of an accidental overdose following chronic depression and addiction. The brothers’ father, Thomas Poitraw Sr., died on September 19, 2021.

“I didn’t want him to get hurt. I didn’t want the police to get hurt,” she said. “He always told them he would force them to take him down, but he never had a gun on him.”

Duarte said his son played with cars as a child and enjoyed going to school. As a teenager, he got into mischief and began to struggle with mental illness, including depression. He eventually received counseling.

The problem was that no one could provide care for her long enough to deal with her depression and suicidal thoughts. Each doctor and specialist had an opinion and tried different drugs, which interacted with each other, Duarte said. Soon, Jacob turned to illegal drugs for treatment.

He and his family members have contacted Aroostook Mental Health Services and Acadia Hospital for the past three years or so for treatment, but largely due to COVID-19 closures and backlogs, the waiting lists were long.

Poitraw attempted suicide multiple times in just over a year, his mother said. Four of those times he was on life support. He would recover and the facilities would release him, she said. At one point medical evaluations deemed him incompetent and he spent several weeks at Dorothea Dix in Bangor, but other than that he received no long-term treatment.

“People with mental illness don’t want to be sick. And Jacob would 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 to the efforts Jacob made every day to overcome his mental illness. There were many times over the past few years, and particularly in his last months and weeks of life, when he begged providers and agencies for mental help and was denied services.

Poitraw had started a turning point when he got an apartment and a job, according to the obituary. He had also started going to church and was trying to mend his relationships with those close to him.

Duarte said she has her daughter and a huge network of family and friends around her to support him. She finds comfort in knowing the 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. That was, even during his addiction, the kind of person he was.

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