NORWAY — More than a dozen community partners gathered in the Harper Conference Room of the Ripley Medical Office Building on Tuesday, Aug. 24, to learn about Western Maine Addiction Recovery Initiative (WMARI).

Healthy Oxford Hills hosted the luncheon gathering as part of its monthly coalition series. The meetings give community partners and members an opportunity to meet and hear about local initiatives and issues impacting Oxford County. Past topics include tick-borne illnesses and county health rankings.

Hollie Legee-Cressman, community nutrition educator for Healthy Oxford Hills and WMARI member lead the presentation and discussion.

“WMARI was formed in 2015 in response to a sharp increase in overdoses and deaths related to substance use disorders,” she said. “Our mission is to build a collaborative, non-judgmental environment to support addiction recovery through education, advocacy, and compassionate community action.”

The goal of the initiative is to lower overdoses and deaths attributed to the heroin epidemic through education and awareness, proactive law enforcement, treatment, and volunteerism. The group also connects with the legislative and legal communities to help reach its goal, she said.

Project Save ME is the group’s banner initiative. Under the program, any person who walks into any police department or emergency room in Oxford County and asks for help is paired with a trained volunteer Recovery Coach. The coach, she said, can help with navigating the system of available treatment options and will advocate for their treatment and recovery.

“People with outstanding warrants for arrest must resolve those warrants before being eligible for help under Project Save ME,” she said. “Those with a history of violent offenses may not be eligible for participation in the program, due to the need to keep Recovery Coaches safe.”

Those asking for help are allowed to turn over a non-trafficable amount of drugs and drug paraphernalia without fear of arrest or charges, she added.

“Everyone deserves recovery,” she said. “Only 10% seek treatment. One of the barriers to seeking treatment is the stigma associated with substance use disorders.”

Language affects the stigma associated with substance use, she said. Using the term ‘substance use disorder’ decreases stigma. On the other hand, ‘substance abuse’ increases stigma, she added.

“It is about connecting people with proven methods to overcome a diagnosable disease,” said Brendan Schauffler of HOH. “The mindset is that it is a personal choice. WMARI is doing important work towards changing this mindset and overcoming this public health epidemic.”

Legee-Cressman said several risks associated with developing a substance abuse disorder have been identified. They include Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), family history of substance use and access to opioids.

ACEs include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; and household dysfunction such as divorce, substance use, mental illness, and having an incarcerated relative or a mother who was treated violently.

“ACEs interfere with brain architecture as it develops,”  said. “The brain develops from front to back. The prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until you are in your early 20s. The reward center develops in your early teens. That is like driving a fully functioning care without the brakes installed.”

WMARI will hold its annual Recovery Rally on Sept. 22 in recognition of National Recovery Month. The event kicks off at 11 a.m. with a march from Longley Square to Moore Park in Paris. A free lunch will take place after the march, followed by guest speakers sharing their stories.

“It is a powerful event and the speakers are phenomenal,” she added.

WMARI is made up of community members and professionals from varied backgrounds, including law enforcement, social services, behavioral health and faith-based communities. Meetings are held on the first Wednesday of each month at 6 p.m. the Crosstone Conference Center, 1132 South Main St., Woodstock. Meetings are open to the public, she said.

For more information on WMARI, Project Save ME, or the upcoming rally, visit wmari.org.

For more information about Healthy Oxford Hills, visit healthyoxfordhills.org or call 739-1075.


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