The Maine Department of Health and Human Services, along with 211 Maine and the state's United Ways, unveiled its "just a text away" program last year. It is an option for individuals seeking opioid addiction treatment to use their smartphones to text for help. Credit: Maine Department of Health and Human Services

In a county with one of the highest rates of substance abuse in Maine, a discussion is beginning on how the community can do more to break down the stigma around addiction.

After months of research and planning, the Knox County Community Health Coalition is launching a project that seeks to form action plans among decision-making groups — such as law enforcement and health care professionals — that tackle the stigma surrounding addiction.

There are countless barriers for individuals on the road to recovery, but stigma is something that a community can work to remove, Connie Putnam, executive director of the Knox County Community Health Coalition, said.

“Stigma can exist when people do not understand that addiction is a brain disorder,” Putnam said. “It’s a disease, it’s not a moral failure.”

On Monday, a community discussion will be held as a starting point for future focus groups that will look at specific areas of the community where addiction poses the biggest problems. Monday’s talk — from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Rockland City Hall — will center on the medical aspect of addiction and how misunderstandings about the mental disorder can stifle someone’s recovery.

The Knox County Community Health Coalition typically focuses on the prevention aspect of substance abuse. However, other groups in Knox County have been increasing efforts to meet the needs of those in recovery from substance use disorder.

In 2015, Knox County saw more than 450 substance abuse hospitalizations, including opiate overdoses, according to a 2016 report from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Only Cumberland County, with a population seven times that of Knox County, reported more than 450 hospitalizations for substance abuse.

Since substance abuse affects such a large swath of Knox County, Putnam said to be “a healthy community,” stigma surrounding the disorder has to be reduced.

After talking with individuals in recovery, Putnam said the coalition realized that stigma surrounding addiction can affect everything from obtaining safe housing to securing a good job — things that are vital for a meaningful recovery from substance abuse.

“The need for resources for recovery is important,” Putnam said. “But I think that stigma sometimes blocks those resources.”

To move beyond just a broad community conversation, the coalition is working to bring four focus groups together in May and June. Each group will consist of about 10 to 12 people who the coalition considers to be “decision-makers” in the realms of law enforcement, schools and businesses, health care and working with women in recovery.

The focus groups will be closed to the public, though the groups will be shown a video of Monday’s presentation so they are starting from the same understanding level. The groups will devise action plans for how they can work to reduce stigma within their own immediate circles.

After the goals are set, Putnam said, the groups will reconvene at the six-month and one-year marks to gauge progress. The hope is that this method will produce quantitative and qualitative data for what works in reducing the stigma surrounding addiction, and how it can be done in other communities.

The coalition is still working on sending out invitations for the focus groups. If they are not able to get the groups together in May or June, Putnam said they will likely be pushed to the fall.

To find help near you for addiction, call 211 or visit

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