GARDINER — More than 30 people spent two hours discussing ways to reduce the impact of substance abuse in local communities during a Monday forum at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Gardiner.

The forum was part of a three-year project by Healthy Communities of the Capital Area to determine what the greatest health-related problems affecting the area are, as well as how to address them.

“We need to build communities, we need to reduce stigma and we need to teach each other about how we care,” said Joanna Joy, executive director of the Gardiner-based organization.

Police Chief James Thoman said he continues to encourage his officers to be seen throughout the community.

“It’s the old adage of get out of the car and go to events that are occurring, whether that be a Little League game or a concert at the waterfront,” Thoman said after the meeting. “I tell them to be approachable and be a part of the community, and let the citizens get to know you on a first-name basis because that breaks down barriers.

“Good things happen when there are no barriers,” he said.

Reducing the stigma associated with substance abuse was a focus of the meeting.

One way to do that, Joy said, is to increase community understanding of the impact of substance abuse and to educate the community about the impact that adverse childhood experiences and trauma have on substance abuse.

Bob Creamer of Hallowell, who spent more than two decades as a recovery counselor, said stigma is a big part of the problem.

“If we continue to focus on the people and not the problem, we’ll keep having these meetings until we’re all gone,” Creamer said. “Addiction is an illness and that is the problem. The person is the victim.”

Creamer said part of the stigma comes from the language people use when talking about substance abuse, including “clean.”

“You hear someone say they are clean when they aren’t using,” Creamer said. “Well, the other side of that would be someone is dirty if they are using, but we don’t use those words when talking about any other disease.”

Nobody says a person who is in remission from cancer is clean, and when they are fighting the disease they are dirty, Creamer said.

Before the meeting broke into group discussions, Joy shared several alarming statistics from the most recent Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey.

Data showed that 63.1 percent of high schoolers from southern Kennebec County, which includes 18 towns from Wayne to Richmond and on both sides of the Kennebec River, don’t believe that marijuana is harmful and 42 percent of local high school students said they’ve vaped.

Boys and Girls Club of Greater Gardiner program director Nate Mitchell recently spoke to a group of mostly high schoolers and said peer pressure and the desire for attention are among the reasons kids use alcohol and drugs.

The same survey found that 50 percent of area high school students feel like they don’t matter to other people. Later in the meeting, the discussion focused on making community connections by increasing shared activities between students and their parents or guardians and by identifying safe spaces for youths to be with their peers.

Last week, data released by the Maine Attorney General’s Office showed drug overdose deaths continuing to climb in Maine with opioids including heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkillers at the heart of the problem.

There have been 189 drug overdose deaths this year in Maine through June 30, an increase of 50 percent over the same period last year, when there were 126 overdose deaths, according to the data.

Joy said she wasn’t shocked when she read the report. She said her organization has interviewed foster families, local teenagers, Head Start program providers, people in recovery and health care providers in researching ways to reduce the risk factors associated with substance abuse.

The Mayo Clinic says people of any age, sex or economic status can become addicted to a drug, but the health care organization identifies several factors that can affect the likelihood and speed of developing an addiction. Those include lack of family involvement, peer pressure, anxiety, depression and loneliness and having another mental health disorder.

An application is due in September for a grant that would provide $60,000 per year for the organization to continue the community collaboration fostered in these meetings. Joy is confident the Gardiner-based organization will receive the funding.

Healthy Communities of the Capital Area will hold a similar forum at the Buker Community Center in Augusta at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.