BRUNSWICK — Mental health care provider Sweetser and Brunswick police have hired a substance abuse clinician to help fight the opioid epidemic in Cumberland County.

Sweetser was awarded $800,000 from the state to provide substance abuse services in eight Maine counties for one year.

Licensed drug and alcohol counselor Tom MacElhaney, who is taking on the role, said that he will be responding to overdose calls and reaching out to individuals to connect them with resources and treatment options.

The state of Maine saw the worst year yet for overdoses in 2020, with 502 deaths, and initial 2021 data shows those numbers are continuing to rise.

In Cumberland County, there were 98 suspected or confirmed overdose deaths in 2020, the highest of any county, according to the Maine Attorney General’s Office. In January of 2021, there were 12 suspected or confirmed overdose deaths in Cumberland County.

Brunswick Police Department serves as a “host” site for MacElhaney, whose services are available throughout Cumberland County, according to Sweetser’s Director of Crisis and Adult Residential Services Danielle Parent.

Officers and detectives from Brunswick Police Department, as well as other law enforcement agencies in the county, are able to make referrals to MacElhaney, who then follows up with appropriate treatment, counseling and harm reduction services.

MacElhaney said that following COVID-19 protocols, he will be able to respond in person.

“I think one of the largest barriers has been that people aren’t aware of the options and resources available to them,” wrote MacElhaney. “A big part of my job is to connect people with the resources that are out there.”

The collaboration is part of a larger initiative throughout the state put forward by Governor Mills.

Known as the “OPTIONS” (Overdose Prevention Through Intensive Outreach, Naloxone and Safety) initiative, the $2.5 million program hopes “to combat the disturbing rise in fatal drug overdoses,” which have been “exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a statement from the governor’s office in October.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a destabilizing and deadly time for persons in recovery across the entire country,” said Gordon Smith, Maine’s director of Opioid Response, in the statement. “We know that we cannot pave the way to recovery if we can’t keep people alive. The OPTIONS initiative will provide on the ground, lifesaving support in communities across Maine to ensure that people have a chance to seek the help they need to recover from substance use disorder.”

MacElhaney said the initiative will provide certain harm reduction services such as needle exchange and naloxone (a medication intended to reverse opioid overdose) which minimizes the chance of fatal overdoses.

“It’s focused on opioids, but it can also be other substance use disorders as well,” said Brunswick Police Officer Jerod Verrill. “Overall, we’re trying to reduce overdoses and get people into treatment quicker and more effectively.”

Verrill said that while the use of a substance abuse counselor will not replace criminal charges for people, the hope is that the new services will lower the number of repeat offenses.

“All of us officers, all of us in law enforcement, we do understand the addiction, we do understand it’s affecting a lot of people and we ultimately do want them to get into treatment and get help that they need,” he said.

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