By: Max Lorber, Arts and Culture Editor
The stigma surrounding opioid use disorder is being tactfully challenged with documentary films and public discourse. The Points North Institute, a non-profit organization, held a Recovery In Maine event in Hannaford hall this past Monday, where Governor Janet Mills delivered a speech about the state-wide effort to treat and prevent substance use.
Recovery In Maine, a film screening and panel discussion event, is aimed at raising awareness and inspiring discussion about the opioid epidemic plaguing the state. Starting in 2018, Points North Institute has held 33 documentary screenings in Maine. At these events, local officials, activists and community members are given an opportunity to discuss their experiences on the firing line of the opioid epidemic.
“It is hard to underestimate or undervalue what happens when we come together as a community in a public space to have difficult conversations about things people normally don’t want to talk about,” said Sean Flynn, Program Director and cofounder of Points North.
After a reception in the lobby of Abronson, the event began with speeches from President of USM Glenn Cummings and Maine Governor Janet Mills.
“This is an issue near and dear to those of us in higher education,” Cummings said.
He went on to highlight the accomplishments of the Recovery Oriented Campus Center (ROCC), describing it as a safe space for students in recovery from substance use. “For those of us who know something about recovery, we know it is not an individual sport.”
Cummings then introduced Governor Janet Mills, who received a standing ovation from the audience before she began her speech.
“When I took office a little over a year ago, I gave my word to Maine people who are suffering from substance use disorder that they are not alone,” Mills said. She went on to recount the steps her administration has made to confront the opioid crisis in Maine, including the Mainecare expansion, which she said has given 6,500 people access to treatment for substance use.
After Governor Mills’ speech, Recovery In Maine showed three short documentaries, offering emotionally charged stories involving substance use and treatment.
“Recovery County”, directed by Cody Ball, follows one doctor in rural Massachusetts as she works to make treatment for opioid use disorder more widely available in her community. The film also gives the personal account of a young mother who is in early recovery from heroin use, and a man waiting to be released from prison into a substance-use treatment facility.
“The Clinic”, directed by Elivia Shaw, utilizes a raw, cinema verite approach while telling the story of a doctor operating a needle exchange and free clinic out of a bus, serving the health needs of IV substance users in Fresno, California.
The last film shown, “Heroin(e)”, directed by Elaine McMillion Sheldon, focuses on Huntington, Virginia, where the heroin overdose rate is 10 times the national average. The film follows a female EMT as she rushes to save the lives of men and women overdosing on heroin, a female judge running Drug Court, and a female volunteer working to help prostitutes get off the streets.
Each film provides stark reminders of the manifestations of the opioid epidemic in the United States, while depicting those affected as human beings with an illness to be treated.
“Addiction is a disease of isolation, and the antidote to that isolation is coming together as a community, sharing a listening to each other’s stories, and breaking down the stigma that that creates that isolation,” Flynn said in a brief speech.
After the three films, Recovery In Maine held a panel discussion, featuring doctors, advocates for recovery, and individuals in recovery from substance use disorder. Michael Sauschuck, Commissioner of Public Safety and former Portland Police Chief; Kristen Silvia, M.D. at Maine Medical Center and member of the Opioid Response Clinical Advisory Committee; Gordon Smith, Director of Opioid Response with the State of Maine; Julie Gregory and Tess Parks, both in long-term recovery; all fielded questions from moderator Taylor Cairns, reporter for Good Day Maine, and audience members.
Nearly all of the panel members cited the stigma attached to opioid and heroin use as an impediment to tackling this epidemic.
The Family Restored, the India Street Health Center and the Portland Recovery Community Center handed out pamphlets and discussed their various methods of combating the effects opioid use-disorder has had on the local community. Volunteers with the India Street Health Center gave out Naloxone cartridges and offered tutorials on administering the medication, which is used to reverse an opioid overdose.
The opioid crisis in Maine has proved devastating over the past several years. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported in 2017 that Maine was one of ten states with the highest rate of deaths involving opioids. With overdose death rates slightly down from 2017, The Associated Press reported in January that 277 people died in the first three quarters of 2019.
Updated March 3, 2020, at 3:46 PM