A year ago Gov. Janet Mills, right, appointed Gordon Smith to take the lead role in Maine’s response to the opioid crisis. Now, the Falmouth Police Department is taking direct action to provide key support to those in recovery. File

FALMOUTH — As part of a community approach to the ongoing opioid crisis, the Police Department is unveiling a new program offering crucial guidance and emotional support to those ready to take the road to recovery, Police Chief John Kilbride said this week.

Operation Phoenix – “Providing Hope and Opportunity through Education, Networking, and Information Exchange” – is designed to destigmatize addiction while giving those in recovery the confidence and empowerment they need to lead “productive, safe lives,” he added.

According to Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, there was a decline in the number of drug overdose deaths reported for 2018, the most recent year statistics were available.

There were 354 drug deaths that year, he said, compared to 417 in 2017. The National Institute on Drug Abuse said Maine was No. 6 in the nation in 2017, when the state recorded nearly 30 overdose deaths per 100,000 people. West Virginia topped the ranking with nearly 50 per 100,000.

Even with the decline, though, “Maine’s opioid crisis continues to be a public health epidemic requiring a comprehensive response,” Frey said in a press release last spring. “Individuals, families and communities continue to be harmed by this public health epidemic, and work must continue to address this crisis.”

While overdose deaths are tracked, no statistics are available for the number of people in recovery from substance use disorder in the state, according to Gordon Smith, the director of Maine’s new Office of Opioid Response.

In an interview in late October regarding the need for more recovery homes statewide, Smith told The Forecaster “it’s quite clear from the science that those in recovery need a lot of support” in order to be successful.

“I think what we really need to hammer home,” he added, “is that substance use disorder is a chronic disease and people who suffer from it have truly been to hell and back. That’s why we need to wrap them up in layers of support.”

Kilbride agreed and said Operation Phoenix will offer help in a”non-judgmental and unbiased atmosphere.”

“The purpose of the (police officer) recovery coach,” he said, “is to act as an ally and confidant motivated to build trust, create open dialogue and provide problem-solving strategies for healthy approaches to recovery and wellness.” That will include working with other organizations that are already well-established within the recovery community, such as the Portland Recovery Community Center and the Milestone Foundation. Call 781-2300 to request help or for more information about Operation Phoenix.

Officer Kathy Oelschlegel, who will take on the role of recovery coach, has worked with the Falmouth Police Department for the past three years after a long career in policing, including stints as a substance abuse educator and a school resource officer.

Kilbride said no additional funding was required to launch Operation Phoenix, as Oelschlegel will only work as a recovery coach when needed. He estimates that she’ll likely deal with about two to three referrals a month.

What’s critically important for the program to succeed, Oelschlegel said this week, is “understanding that recovery is a process.”

It was Oelschlegel who first brought Operation Phoenix to Kilbride’s attention. The program got its start in Gloucester, Massachusetts, several years ago and has now spread to 400 police departments in 32 states across the country, she said.

The Falmouth program is similar to one provided by the Scarborough Police Department and other community partners, which is called Operation Hope, or Herion-Opiate Prevention Effort.

The goal of that program is to “treat those suffering from substance use disorder with compassion, care and concern,” according to the organization’s website. Operation Hope also allows people to voluntarily turn in heroin, opiates, needles and paraphernalia without fear of arrest.

Oelschlegel hasn’t met with any clients yet, but said a typical session would include “identifying and removing barriers and obstacles to a client’s success,” such as taking an honest look at the underlying reasons for the addiction. And “evidence-based” strategies would be used to create a recovery plan based on specific goals, such as getting back to work, or reaching out to estranged family members.

“This program,” she said, “is a community policing initiative that (provides) an opportunity for our department to take a leadership role in … (the) response to this public health concern. I hope this program sends a strong message that recovery starts with motivation, support and the understanding that addiction is a chronic medical condition.”

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