Substance abuse in Maine spiked during the pandemic, but experts at an addiction awareness event in Bath Wednesday night argued reducing the stigma around addiction and harm reduction tools like naloxone could help quell the rising threat of fentanyl.

“Substance use disorder is a chronic illness,” said Gordon Smith, Maine’s Director of Opioid Response. “Our goal in Maine is to have it treated like a chronic illness. We are trying to keep people alive.”

The event, organized by the Rotary Club of Bath and hosted by Morse High School, featured a panel of four speakers who discussed their personal experiences with addiction, substance use statistics in Maine and available local resources.

Pandemic lockdowns contributed to a surge in substance use in 2020 and 2021, said Tom Kivler, Mid Coast Hospital’s senior director of Behavioral Health. Stress and isolation from the pandemic pushed even light and moderate users to consume more drugs and alcohol, while heavy users and those recovering from substance abuse especially struggled without their usual support systems.

“We’ve just sort of seen an across-the-board increase in behavioral health need and acuity,” Kivler said. “What we immediately saw with people in treatment was a struggle to stay in recovery.”

An estimated 636 Mainers died of drug overdoses in 2021, according to researchers at the University of Maine, an increase of more than 20% over the previous state record set in 2020.

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The emergence of fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid that is now commonly mixed in with other illicit drugs, is partly responsible for the increase in overdoses, according to a report from the University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. The report, which included data from January through September of 2021, attributed 76% of overdoses to fentanyl.

“It’s just so scary today,” Smith warned. “Fentanyl has changed everything.”

Despite the grim statistics, the panelists argued education, treatment options and harm reduction policies could help save lives.

Eric Girard, executive director of The Family Restored, described falling into drugs as a high school student in a suburban Massachusetts home, while Kennebunk Chief of Police Robert MacKenzie talked about his daughter’s addiction. Both stressed how people of any background could develop substance abuse problems, even in Sagadahoc County, which had the fewest drug deaths in the state last year, according to state data.

NaloxBox is an opioid intervention kit that will be placed in public buildings as part of Maine’s efforts to address the opioid crisis. Photo courtesy of Amos House

Maria Beauregard, the Sagadahoc County liaison to the Overdose Prevention Through Intensive Outreach Naloxone and Safety initiative, or “OPTIONS,” rounded out the event’s panel by describing the organization’s offerings and training attendees to administer naloxone, a nasal spray that reverses opioid overdoses. She explained that she and her fellow OPTIONS liaisons support those suffering from substance abuse through a variety of means, including finding them a treatment center or handing out naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan.

“I’m not there to judge somebody,” Beauregard said. “I’m there to get folks where they need to go.”

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Though harm reduction measures like Narcan used to generate pushback from skeptics who feared it would encourage drug use, Kivler said, they have become more accepted in recent years.

Since 2019, naloxone administration has reversed over 3,900 overdoses in Maine, according to data from the University of Maine.

The OPTIONS team, which like many treatment centers and pharmacies gives out naloxone to individuals at no cost, could not distribute the drug at Wednesday’s event due to the district’s medication policies, according to RSU 1 Superintendent Patrick Manuel. But he added that the district is working to make that policy more flexible, which could eventually allow for partner organizations to distribute the life-saving drug.

Alyssa Pelchat, Clinical Supervisor of the OPTIONS program at Sweetser, a nonprofit mental health provider, hoped that move, combined with similar steps from other schools, businesses and organizations, will eventually result in a world where Naloxone training is as common and stigma-free as defibrillator training.

“I didn’t learn CPR so I could give it to myself, she said. “I don’t carry naloxone to use it myself. I carry naloxone so that I can help somebody else if the occasion ever arises.”


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