CAMDEN, Maine — Dr. Ira Mandel and Jasmine Pike took starkly different routes but have both have arrived at the same spot, spearheading a group in Knox County that wants to treat the epidemic of opioid abuse and death.
The two are among the members of the steering committee of the Knox County Recovery Coalition, which formed earlier this year. The coalition completed a series of community forums Thursday night, which attracted people who both offered their assistance and shared stories of addiction and loss.
Mandel moved to Knox County 10 years ago from Tampa, Florida. He had planned on specializing in family medicine, saying he wanted to deliver babies and help families. But he had only been practicing a few months in Knox County when psychiatrist Frederick Goggans at Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport approached him and asked if he would be interested in treating patients addicted to opiates.
There was a shortage of physicians who treated people with opiate addictions through replacement medication, such as Suboxone, Mandel said.
“I was not aware of the serious drug addiction problem in the area,” Mandel acknowledged.
But he soon realized the extent of the opioid addiction crisis. He was trained and soon licensed to treat up to 100 patients. His practice was quickly at capacity and the waiting list to see him grew.
For Pike, she has been sober for three years after many years of being addicted to alcohol and drugs. She was raised in a conservative household in Camden, and she was shy as a teen. She began drinking to become more comfortable around her peers, but she said that she couldn’t stop drinking once she started.
Mandel and Pike’s paths merged during the past year with the alarming rise in opioid deaths.
Statewide in 2015, 272 people died as the result of overdosing — a 31 percent increase over 2014, which saw a record 208 overdose deaths. The increase was blamed on the use of heroin, fentanyl or a combination of the two drugs in the second half of last year.
Heroin use was most prevalent among the southern and coastal regions — specifically York, Cumberland, Androscoggin, Kennebec and Knox counties, according to a 2015 analysis of arrest and treatment data by the Maine Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services. Rates of heroin trafficking sales and arrests were highest in the midcoast.
Pike said she was not a believer in treatment for addiction through medications, such as Suboxone or methadone, but after meeting with Mandel, she realized that there were many approaches that were needed.
In February, a forum held in Rockland on the opioid crisis attracted 130 people who crammed the City Hall chambers to tell their stories of heartbreak and concerns.
Mandel said after that meeting ended, he did not simply want more meetings to be held to discuss the crisis. Instead, he said, what was needed were gatherings to implement proposals. Mandel, Pike and several other people formed the Knox County Recovery Coalition. The group will be seeking to form a nonprofit organization, but in the meantime, the Penobscot Bay YMCA is serving as the group’s fiscal agent.
“There was a tremendous amount of passion. When the meeting disbanded we felt we needed to do something more,” Mandel said, adding that a “rag-tag team” met to create the coalition.
“We didn’t want to study the problem too long, people are dying,” he said.
The first action being taken by the coalition was to schedule training — in two weeks — for people who want to serve as recovery coaches. The goal is to have 30 people complete the 30 hours of training to certify them. As of last week, 15 people had signed up, and Mandel encouraged others to sign up.
These people will not be counselors but instead will be available to meet people in person or by telephone to provide information on where services are available. Mandel and Pike both said that for people with addictions and their families, there is a dearth of information on what services are available.
The coalition has temporary space on the second floor of 16 School St. in Rockland where from 5 to 6 p.m. people will be able to stop in and talk with coaches. In addition, from 6 to 7 p.m., families and friends can stop to seek information to help someone with addiction.
The group also is now working on getting a recovery house. Mandel said the needs of hospice patients are served by the Sussman House, the homeless population is served by Hospitality House, but there is no house to serve people with opioid addiction.
Mandel said he also is encouraged that law enforcement is working with the organization.
Camden police Chief Randy Gagne said last week at a coalition forum in Camden that when he first started with the department 28 years ago, there would never have been such a large turnout for a meeting on drug addiction.
“It would have been hush, hush,” Gagne said.
The chief said two people have been brought back to life in Camden recently from the use of Narcan after they had overdosed.
“We can’t arrest our way out of the problem. Jails are not the answer,” Gagne said.
Knox County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Tim Carroll agreed said jail was not the place to house people who are addicted and that correctional officers are not drug counselors.
Mandel and Pike both said the support of law enforcement is important. They said that it will take a coordinated effort from people throughout the community to try to deal with the crisis.
“Ira and I agree that this is a bigger problem than either of us can handle on our own,” Pike said.