Anne LaFond, Jennifer Gregg and Bonny Rodden hope signs like this one will become reminders and beacons of hope to both members of the community and those struggling from addiction. Chance Viles / The Forecaster

FALMOUTH — Addressing stigma is the first step to help people recover from substance misuse disorders, according to Falmouth Police Chief John Kilbride, and the Episcopal Church of Saint Mary is working to get the community on the same page.

To that end, church volunteers are starting a new series, “Facing Stigma: Creating Solutions,” from 4-6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 25. The guest speaker is Suzanne Fox, executive director of The Yellow Tulip Project, which focuses on the stigma surrounding mental illness.

The aim of the project, a collaboration with town leaders, is to help the community learn the ways stigma affects their daily lives, and how they can stop it.

Destigamization is especially important for depression and substance misuse, the volunteers said, as the COVID-19 pandemic has isolated people even further, making them less apt to get help on top of the roadblock created by stigma.

“People are dying (from suicide and opioid addictions) and stigma is a huge roadblock,” church volunteer Bonny Rodden said.

According to the Maine Attorney General’s latest Drug Death Report released in July, which looked at how the pandemic has played into overdoses, 127 deaths were caused by drugs in the first quarter of 2020, a 23% increase over the fourth quarter of 2019. Of the deaths recorded, 82% were caused by at least one opioid.

Suicide was the second-leading cause of death among youth ages 10-24 and adults ages 25-34 in 2016, the last year statistics were available from the Maine Suicide Prevention Program.

In a report published by Maine Centers for Disease Control in 2015, from 2010-2012 there were 630 deaths by suicide in Maine, an average of 210 suicides per year.

Through guest speakers, Zoom forums and small break-out groups, the church hopes that residents will walk away with more understanding about the issue.

Upcoming programs will delve into the stigma New Mainers and immigrants face and touch on racial prejudice. Substance misuse and other forms of stigma will also be addressed. For more information, visit www.smary.org.

“If there is shame, people are afraid to seek help when they need it,” Jennifer Gregg, chairwoman of the church’s outreach program, said.

The project comes after a similar series was held in partnership with the town last year about the opioid pandemic as a whole.

“The town has been a great partner, and I think people will take away a lot,” said Janet Bowne, chairwoman of the church’s board of trustees.

While Kilbride does not have exact data, he estimates about 70% of all arrests in Falmouth relate to substance misuse, making it a community problem. According to the chief, from 2016-2019 the department made 448 arrests.

“It is an issue in Falmouth; it is not going away. It isn’t always obvious, but monitoring all the calls, I see it regularly,” Kilbride said. “Whether it is theft, domestic violence, or something else, if you go upstream you will see substance misuse often has a role.” 

Facing the stigma attached to the problem is the first roadblock to recovery, policy changes Kilbride has incorporated in his department.

“We’ve spent some great efforts to destigmatize the language we use, educating our officers, having them recognize that this is one step in many on the road to recovery, and it has changed immensely from when I started,” he said. “You don’t hear ‘drug addicts,’ you don’t say ‘drunks,’ destigmatizing that and getting the proper language out there is an important piece.” 

The department has also added a recovery coach to help those who are recently arrested get the help they need and connect them to resources, but Kilbride said destigmatizing addiction came first.

“It took me a while to really understand that. I’d been blessed to never have to go through that, but listening to folks who’ve gone through addiction and come out the other side, all of them say destigmatizing helped them come out behind the wall and just say, ‘I have an issue, I have a problem,'” Kilbride said.

Onnie Hastings, a volunteer with the Episcopal Church of Saint Mary, plants bulbs as part of the Yellow Tulip Project, which aims to end the stigma behind depression and mental health. The church is hosting a Zoom talk by Yellow Tulip Project Director Suzanne Fox on Oct. 25. Courtesy photo

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