2017-05-25 / Front Page

Four months in

Opiate outreach coordinator works to rid stigma
By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer


Maegan Lambert-Irish Maegan Lambert-Irish BIDDEFORD – Maegan Lambert- Irish is working hard to raise awareness after just 16 weeks in the position of outreach coordinator for the Saco Biddeford Opiate Outreach Initiative. The program was started in November 2016 as a collaboration between the Saco and Biddeford Police Departments to combat drug abuse in the twin cities. Lambert-Irish, 33, of Standish, accepted the coordinator position at the end of January 2017 to help those seeking treatment find local rehabilitation services.

She understands the process will be slow in the beginning, but said she hasn’t reached as many people as she would like to yet. Lambert-Irish said some days can be hectic but there are others when the phone doesn’t ring at all. She thinks one of the biggest barriers people face in seeking help is the stigmatization of addiction.

“Addiction is a disease. Your brain physically changes. All the negative behaviors are just symptoms of that disease. We don’t throw stones at the person who suffers a heart attack or has diabetes. We treat them and let them go on with their life. Degrading people just makes it worse.”

So far she has reached out to 115 people and seen 49 since starting the new position, and 31 overdoses have been reported in that time span. Knowing the actual number of overdoses in that timeframe is complicated, however. An individual’s first overdose is less likely to be deadly and often goes unreported. Friends and family are also reluctant to call 911 when an overdose occurs, choosing instead to address the problem on their own. Lambert-Irish said this means law enforcement officials can’t know how many occur in the community.

“We find out about the ones that don’t make it,” she said.

Lamerbt-Irish said most of her referalls come from police officers interacting with people in the community. From there it’s a matter of convincing someone struggling with addiction to come in and meet with Lambert-Irish one on one. After the initial assessment Lambert-Irish can choose the best program for the individual.

Local organizations that assist with addiction treatment include Southern Maine Health Care, SMART Child and Family Services, Central Maine Counseling Key 3 West and Groups Recover Together. Lambert-Irish said some of these places have grant money to treat individuals but the majority of people she places do not have insurance. She said having insurance does not always lead to treatment, however.

Lambert-Irish said most of the people she places in recovery receive intensive out-patient treatment, but that following up is the most effective piece. Intensive outpatient treatment can consist of four hour group therapy and education sessions, four to five days a week for up to six weeks.

“The major part of treatment is the counseling aspect,” she said.

Part of the stigmatization of substance abuse, according to Lambert-Irish, is the perception that it predominantly affects people of a lower socio-economic status. Lambert-Irish said people with more resources are able to hide their addictions more easily. Alcohol is the most widely abused substance and is available for purchase legally. Many people seeking treatment she’s spoken to had well-paying jobs at one point before usage took over their lives.

“Substance abuse has no defined barriers, it could affect everyone,” she said.

Lambert-Irish said she doesn’t know how Biddeford compares to other cities and towns in the state regarding drug abuse. Being a small area with many people right off the turnpike contributes to the problem, she said. Proper education and opportunities for alternative activities are two of the most important items that will help prevent substance abuse.

“People are less likely to use drugs if they’re going to the gym,” she said. “If they focus on being healthy, they won’t have time to do drugs.”

Lambert-Irish believes people can recover and that bad things happen to good people. Substance abusers are an underserved population, she said, but still extraordinary people. She said most often users are written off, but they can succeed if they have someone cheering for them.

“Everybody deserves to have the life they want to lead,” she said.

Lambert-Irish said the position she is in was originally intended for two people. She and the Saco and Biddeforf Police Departments are looking into the possibility of hiring interns but it all depends on the needs of the community. Right now she said the main goals for both communities are to help reduce the stigma of substance abuse and to spread the word that help is available for those who seek it.

“Everybody who has asked for treatment has received treatment,” she said.

Sgt. Steven Gorton of the Biddeford Police Department said 20 years ago he couldn’t have imagined law enforcement playing a role in mental health issues. However, Gorton said a change was necessary since police officers are the ones who most frequently come into contact with untreated populations. That was the momentum behind the creation of the Street Crimes Unit by Biddeford Police Chief Roger Beaupre in 2014.

“The main focus of street crimes is quality of life,” Gorton said.

Gorton said Beaupre recognized that there were people in need of help, struggling with addiction and it wouldn’t be possible to arrest their way out of the situation. The model became to do everything the police department can to get users everything they need, Gorton said. That led to the hiring of Lambert-Irish at the end of January.

“Maegan can perform a needs-based assessment we couldn’t do before, find the right programs and apply the same resources more effectively. Now we have the total package of recognizing a need and getting the help that is appropriate, which we couldn’t do before,” Gorton said.

Gorton said there were 378 deaths from overdose in Maine in 2016, a 39 percent increase from the previous year. He said he likes to focus more on the individual than the statistics, but there has to be some measure to qualify for state spending.

“The grant number is linked to overdose reduction, but that’s difficult to qualify. There could be bad dope in town that is mostly fentanyl. That’s going to bring up overdose numbers not necessarily related to how successful Maegan is,” Gorton said.

Gorton said he would like to foster more interest among the addicted population to get help. The Biddeford Police Department is working on a PSA to remind people that recovery is difficult but not impossible. Gorton said law enforcement is one piece of a greater community of committed people standing by.

“We try as an agency from the chief down to change our language around the issue,” he said. “If an officer can speak to someone with care and not look down on them, maybe they’ll accept services.”

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