Dr. Ira Mandel held up a poster during a 2016 community forum in Rockland on the heroin crisis that urged Pen Bay Medical Center physicians to treat opiate addicts. Credit: Courtesy of Stephen Betts

ROCKLAND, Maine ― Five years ago, if you struggled with substance use disorder in Knox County, it was difficult to figure out where to go for help because there were few resources being offered in the area.

But the tide has been turning in recent years, as a number of groups have established or expanded resources aimed at helping people who struggle with addiction.

Two recovery residences have opened in the area, offering safe and sober living for both men and women. In 2019, a county-wide collaborative was formed to bring together organizations that deal with substance use and recovery was formed. The group continues to meet weekly to determine what resources are available, and which are still needed.

The latest advancement of this trend is the opening of a new office space in Rockland where three organizations that focus on substance use disorder, recovery and restorative justice will be housed together. The collaboration between the Coastal Recovery Community Center, the Health Equity Alliance and the Restorative Justice Project will bring varying services that can help people who suffer from substance use disorder all under one roof.

Services offered will include a new space for peer support groups, individualized case management as well the county’s first syringe exchange program.

“The sky’s the limit because no matter where they are in their recovery, whether they’re still in active use or whether they are freshly released [from jail] or whether they are 20 years into their sobriety, they will be welcomed.” Erin Hustus, Co-Director of the Coastal Recovery Community Center said. “This is the benefit that everyone working in one space offers.”

The new collaboration comes at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a spike in overdose deaths in Maine and nationwide.

Knox County saw 17 documented drug-related deaths in 2020, up from seven in 2019, six in 2018 and 11 in 2017, according to data compiled by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center.

The number of drug-related deaths in Knox County last year was nearly double the drug-related deaths that occured in neighboring counties with similar populations. In 2020, both Waldo County and Lincoln County had nine drug-related deaths and Sagadahoc County documented seven.

Given the increase in overdose deaths over the last year, the need for groups with similar missions to collaborate on providing recovery and substance use resources is more pronounced than ever, Health Equity Alliance Downeast and Midcoast Regional Manager Ashley Brown said.

“I see a lot of collaboration happening in this realm and I think that may be a byproduct of COVID and certainly the overdose spikes,” Brown said. “It can feel like all these organizations that are doing great work can just be siloed in their own work but coming together and having a better community coordination of care is what it takes to solve the issues.”

The idea for the three organizations to cohabitat in one location in Rockland was largely due to the fact that ― while each entity has a different mission ― it could foster potential collaboration and expose their clients to a wider number of services that they might not have been aware of.

“Somebody who might be interested in one of our services could stop in and actually access all three,” Brown said.

The new space gives both the Health Equity Alliance and the Restorative Justice Project the opportunity to have a dedicated space and staff in Rockland for the first time. The Coastal Recovery Community Center formed five years ago in the city, offering peer support groups, such as NA and AA, as well as recovery coach services.

The Health Equity Alliance, which has locations in several communities throughout Maine, is a health justice organization that offers support to people with substance use disorder and people living with HIV.

In Rockland, the organization will offer free naloxone distribution as well as the county’s first syringe exchange program, which aims to reduce the transmission of bloodborne diseases. Prior to the Health Equity Alliance offering this service in Rockland, people needed to travel to Augusta or Bangor to access a clean needle exchange program.

Additionally, the organization offers case management for individuals struggling with substance use disorder to assess and address their needs, including mental health, housing and food access.

“We support people in any stage or their recovery or active use. [Through case management] we work with them to identify what some of their unmet needs are and some of their goals that will get them to a place of stability and wellbeing,” Brown said.

The Restorative Justice Project, a Belfast-based group, works to promote justice practices that focus on rehabilitating a criminal offender ― or someone who has caused harm of a non-criminal nature ― through reconciliation with the harmed party and the overall community.

While the group’s work is not solely focused around substance use disorder, it is a community issue that can benefit from restorative justice practices, according to Erica Buswell, the Knox County coordinator for the Restorative Justice Project.

“People who are struggling with substance use disorder are experiencing harm and they may feel disconnected from their communities,” Buswell said. “Restorative practices can either prevent that harm from happening or help repair the harm caused.”

Collaboration between the Health Equity Alliance and the Restorative Justice Project is already under way. The groups are working with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office to develop a law enforcement diversion program, which would create a pathway for police to refer individuals to the two community groups for support services instead of issuing summons or making an arrest in some circumstances.

Bruce Hodsdon, co-director of the Coastal Recovery Community Center, said the new shared space and the collaboration behind it sends a positive message to people in the community who may need help.

“It sends a message that all the folks that are working in this field are sitting down together as a community and addressing the problem not just as each individual group but as a community,” Hodsdon said. “It’s tough for people to voluntarily step forward to seek help. But I think there are many more resources now than there were four years ago, and that growth is really just starting.”

The three organizations moved into office space at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on White Street last month. The Coastal Recovery Community Center is already holding meetings in the space, and staff members from the Health Equity Alliance and Restorative Justice Project are holding regular office hours at the site. Due to COVID-19, the organizations recommend scheduling appointments in advance.