LEWISTON – There are many accomplishments in the fight against the opioid crisis to be celebrated even as critical work continues, a panel of state and local leaders on substance use disorder and recovery said at the virtual Great Falls Forum Thursday.

The panel kicked off the 24th season of the Great Falls Forum, a monthly speaker series featuring statewide and regional leaders in public policy, business, academia, health and the arts hosted by the Lewiston Public Library.

“Remarkable things have been happening, particularly in the last couple of years in Maine,” said Doug Dunbar, who serves as Eastern Maine Development Corp.’s Recovery and Reentry Workforce specialist in Bangor.

“But sadly, because of COVID and all of its many ripple effects throughout our society, we are really very much struggling with overdose deaths and other tragic consequences, again, of COVID, and what that has generated,” he said.

The Great Falls Forum kicked off its 24th season Thursday with a discussion of substance use disorder and treatment options. Clockwise from left are speakers Doug Dunbar, Stephanie Gelinas, Jeremy Hiltz and Gordon Smith. Screenshot from video

Dunbar was joined by Lewiston Ward 7 City Councilor Stephanie Gelinas, Recovery Connections of Maine founder Jeremy Hiltz and Gordon Smith, director of Opioid Response for Gov. Janet Mills’ Prevention and Recovery Cabinet.

For Dunbar, Gelinas and Hiltz, substance use disorder and recovery are personal.

Dunbar spent 30 years in public service, including as John Baldacci’s communications director in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the former governor’s cabinet as a deputy secretary of state.

Dunbar said that about during that time he began to “self-medicate” his yet-to-be-diagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety with alcohol “until it all finally came crashing down around me four years ago next month.”

“September is always National Recovery Month, which focuses on both healing and recovery from substance use disorder and from mental health challenges,” he said. “I’ve suffered from both and because of stigma and other concerns, I kept it all a secret.”

Following a series of arrests for operating under the influence of alcohol and other charges, Dunbar was incarcerated for about four months in late 2017. He spent over a year in the Penobscot County adult drug treatment court.

Now, nearly four years sober, Dunbar works with Mainers in recovery as they reenter the workforce.

This fall marks another important milestone for Gelinas. Her son, Kristopher Akerley, would have turned 30 years old next week.

“But instead, he’s 28 forever in my mind, as he lost his battle to this insidious disease of substance use disorder and he died of an overdose death,” Gelinas said.

“His passing came after a period of about six years of actively identifying and attempting to treat (substance use disorder) via various rehabs, sober living arrangements and different treatment options,” she said.

Gelinas sits on the Lewiston Area Public Health Committee, which she said has identified addressing substance use in the community and advocating for recovery options as one of its “top priorities.”

“Her passion,” she said, is knowing that “some like my son are not necessarily given the gift of recovery and time.”

“And I come to tables like this with a strong urging to others, to fight for your life while you still have it,” Gelinas said.

Hiltz has lived on both sides of substance use disorder. He’s in long-term recovery and has been working in addiction treatment in the Lewiston-Auburn area for over a decade.

“Part of my passion comes in for trying to create an atmosphere of inclusion of people that are seeking treatment,” he said. He was also formerly incarcerated and had to transition back into his community.

“I’ve seen this issue affect people on both sides of this thing,” he said. “I’ve seen it affect families, loved ones and people really struggling with what to do.”

Gordon Smith, an attorney and a longtime former executive for the Maine Medical Association, addressed the opioid crisis from the state level.

Though he’s been “fortunate” that he does not have a personal connection to substance use disorder, Smith said it’s taught him “that it makes it really important to listen.”

OxyContin, the highly addictive pain killer manufactured by Purdue Pharma, came to market and began popping up in Maine during his tenure at MMA.

Back then, he said, “my introduction to this issue was really through physician prescribing of opioids.”

The battle has changed since then, Smith said, as Maine’s prescription monitoring program has curbed the opiate doctor-to-patient pipeline and nonprescription drugs such as fentanyl and heroin have taken over.

In the past five years even, the situation has changed, Hiltz said.

“We have a large problem coming up with methamphetamine,” he said.

Methamphetamine, or crystal meth, is a highly addictive stimulate that can affect the central nervous system, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“It’s all over our community, it’s a cheaper option sometimes, it’s easy to struggle with,” Hiltz said. And it’s creating tension with first responders and hospital providers, he said, who are often the first point of contact and introduction to recovery options.

“I think this is going to speak to the work that we still have to do (which) is, how do we as a community gently and lovingly and kindly approach folks that are in a substance use and mental health crisis?”

All four agreed that education on substance use disorder is critical to addressing it and simple changes in language, for example, can help end the stigma that discourages so many people from seeking help, Gordon said.

“We don’t talk about addicts anymore,” he said. “We talk about persons, we talk about people with substance use disorders.”

“Language really matters and one of the primary reasons that only 10% of people in this country get treatment is because of stigma,” Smith said.

Another simple way to help out is to carry naloxone, the overdose-reversing medication. The training takes all of five minutes, Smith said.

This weekend presents an opportunity to learn more about recovery resources in the L/A area. The Lewiston Area Public Health Committee is hosting its inaugural Rally for Recovery from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.  Saturday in Kennedy Park at Park and Pine streets.

The Great Falls Forum is free and co-sponsored by the library, Lewiston Sun Journal and Bates College. Recordings of the virtual Great Falls Forum programs will be archived on the library’s YouTube channel following the live event.

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