BRIDGTON — The Lakes Region Recovery Center has seen steady growth in membership numbers since they first opened in the fall of 2018. According to Micki Bless, the center’s communications specialist, about 30 people registered at their first open house in September of 2018. Today, they serve 298.

The medical practice of Dr. Peter Leighton and the Lakes Region Recovery Center, both on the Bridgton Hospital campus, and Crooked River Counseling provide multiple means of access to recovery, advocates say.

In the first four months of 2020, the LRRC served about 1,500 people. When compared to the first four months that the LRRC was open, that number doubled. In 2019 alone, they recorded 5,108 visitors.

According to Catherine Clough-Bell, CEO of the LRRC and Crooked River Counseling, this is the first integrated medication assisted treatment program in Bridgton.

“No matter where a person enters, no matter what the entry point is, they can get the help they need,” Clough-Bell said. “I’d like to think we’re making a giant difference.”

The Lakes Region Recovery Center provides peer support to those in recovery from substance use disorders, as well as a range of other issues, from post-traumatic stress disorder to incarcerated loved ones. It also serves as a drop-in support center, seeing anywhere from 20 to 50 people a day, according its program coordinator, Michelle Valeriani. Its free membership allows members to participate in the center’s recreational activities, such as outings to go bowling and other events.

The LRRC uses the term “members” instead of “patients” or “clients” in an effort to sound less clinical.

Clough-Bell said Bridgton does not have that many opioid overdoses relative to other communities in Maine because of its treatment and community education efforts.

According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in the last three months of 2019, there were 47 drug overdoses in Oxford County, which borders Bridgton, and 116 in nearby Androscoggin County. Statewide during that same period there were 937 suspected overdoses.  There is no county-specific information on overdoses in Cumberland County.

Leighton, who runs a medication assisted treatment practice to treat substance use disorders, says many of his 210 patients are from Oxford and Androscoggin counties. 

The next closest recovery center is 37 miles away in Portland. Leighton has patients who drive an hour from Lewiston to his practice because they can’t find a physician that prescribes buprenorphine there. Buprenorphine, sometimes known by its name brand Suboxone, is used to treat opioid dependency.

“There’s actually a place they can go right in Bridgton,” said Police Chief Richard Stillman. “It’s just made a huge difference in our ability to provide services to people that are really suffering.”

Valeriani said there is more work to be done, including educating the public about addiction. 

“I feel like that is one of the bigger pieces to change (is) stigma and labels. Labels hurt. They hurt. They keep us in shame.” 

Like Valeriani, Leighton sees stigma and a lack of understanding as major barriers to recovery.

“The biggest misconception that I found in the community is that people to this day, including my colleagues, feel like addiction is an acute problem. So if you break your arm, you wear a cast for a while, it heals up, and then you live your life as normal. What we understand now, based on evidence-based medicine, is that the best model (for patient care) is a chronic disease model,” Leighton said. 

He and Clough-Bell also work on community education efforts, like public forums with Stillman, the police chief. Their hope is that with greater understanding of substance use disorders, more people will seek treatment.

“We’re not going to be able to address the opioid crisis without community,” he said. 

While the LRRC had to quickly switch over to a virtual model due to state mandates for COVID-19, Clough-Bell said that the silver lining is that she’s seeing members re-engage with their treatment. 

She added that Crooked River Counseling also switched over to telehealth options and is continuing to accept new patients.

Comments are not available on this story.