Healthy Acadia and Aroostook Mental Health Center, which both won million dollar federal grants last week to combat the opioid epidemic, will use the money primarily on community prevention and training initiatives.
A total of 502 Mainers died of an overdose last year, and there were roughly 360 overdose deaths by the end of July this year. Nearly half of all Americans know someone addicted to prescription painkillers, and 20 percent know someone who has died from an overdose, a Kaiser Family Foundation poll found in 2017.
But in rural Maine, advocates have said the stigma surrounding substance use disorder is still killing people.
The new grant money will primarily go toward raising awareness and expanding resources into schools and primary care offices where more people may be able to access them.
“It’s one thing to have all of these different options. It’s great to have all kinds of different services. It’s great that they’re available,” Aroostook Mental Health Project Coordinator Erik Lamoreau said. “But at the end of the day, none of that is any good if we don’t have anyone to run it and work in it and participate in it.”
The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration has earmarked the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program grants to be used specifically to establish and expand certain prevention, treatment and recovery programs. As examples, it lists implementing drug take-backs, training more peer recovery coaches and teaching health and social service providers to identify the symptoms of substance use disorder.
“If someone comes into a dentist’s office … and somehow that dentist learns they have a substance use disorder, that dentist may not be prepared to support that person,” Healthy Acadia Recovery Programs Manager Caroline Bloss said.
While the funds were awarded specifically to Healthy Acadia and Aroostook Mental Health, both groups work with health care centers, plus advocacy and law enforcement groups in Hancock, Washington and Aroostook counties, which will implement programs using the funding as well.
Aroostook Mental Health, for example, is championing an initiative with the funds to give naloxone to every incarcerated person as they leave Aroostook County Jail, Lamoreau said.
U.S. Sen. Angus King — alongside U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Jared Golden — backed Aroostook Mental Health Center’s application to the grant in February. Local organizations are often best positioned to deal with the opioid epidemic in Maine, where the needs in different communities vary wildly, King said.
“Particularly in rural areas, it often is a matter of personal contact and trust,” King said. “The clients, the patients, those afflicted with this terrible disease have to feel that they know who they’re dealing with and there’s a community behind the treatment.”
Building trust means making it easier for people to ask for help, and teaching the community how to respond when that happens, Healthy Acadia Recovery Programs Director Penny Guisinger said. When people with substance use disorder don’t come forward, it often has to do with fear.
“It’s about people’s perceptions: not wanting to be seen, not wanting to be judged,” Guisinger said.
Lamoreau, who is in recovery himself, led a community survey earlier this year to determine what programs were needed to address substance use disorder in Aroostook County. After interviewing people in active addiction, recovery and in the wider community, he said training emerged as one of the primary needs.
Widespread misconceptions about addiction — that it’s a personal choice, that people don’t recover — stem from decades of harsh legal penalties and few medical resources for people with substance use disorder, Lamoreau said. Having a criminal record from drug possession charges still makes it difficult to get a job, even when a person is sober and years into recovery, he said.
To turn the corner, Lamoreau said the war on drugs, and its punitive approach to addiction needs to end.
“We need to get people passionate, we need to get people interested, and we need to start talking about it more,” Lamoreau said. “The more we talk about it, the more that it’s out there the more resources will come.”