ELLSWORTH — Healthy Acadia held a vigil for Overdose Awareness Day at its INSPIRE Recovery Center in Ellsworth last week, giving those in the community whose lives have been affected by overdose deaths an opportunity to come together and share grief and support with one another.
Aug. 31 was International Overdose Awareness Day, which is an important day for the INSPIRE Recovery Center, whose mission is to help those with substance use disorders recover and spread awareness about the dangers and tragedies that come with addiction. Maine saw over 600 overdose deaths in 2021, a number that is projected to increase this year.
“I really want to make this a priority this year because it’s not getting better, it’s only getting worse,” said Beth Alteri, the Recovery Program volunteer coordinator for Healthy Acadia.
Overdoses and resulting deaths are on the rise in Maine and in Hancock County.
“We’re already on target for a 10 percent increase [in overdoses in the state of Maine] this year, over last year, so it just keeps getting bigger,” Alteri said.
The vigil featured a memory board, where community members could display pictures of loved ones who lost their lives to overdoses, and a display of 56 pairs of shoes to represent the 56 overdose deaths in Hancock County from 2017 to 2021. The shoe display will be traveling to various locations in the county throughout September, which is Recovery Awareness Month.
“We come together tonight to remember and to honor the lives that have been lost to overdose and to substance use disorder,” Alteri said. “One is too many, and we have had enough.”
The first speaker at the event was Gordon Smith, who was appointed to be the director of opioid response for the state by Governor Janet Mills. Smith previously served as executive vice president of the Maine Medical Association.
Smith read a letter from Governor Mills to the crowd gathered at the recovery center.
“In 2021, over 107,000 individuals died in the United States from drug overdoses, including 630 individuals here in Maine, and I will insert 22 in Hancock County,” Smith read from the Governor’s letter. “The state of Maine has distributed over 200,000 doses of a life-saving drug, Naloxone, to date, resulting in saving more than 3,500 lives.”
Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, is a drug that blocks opioid receptors in the body and can reverse the effects of a fatal overdose. This is an important tool that the INSPIRE Recovery Center uses to combat overdoses, and there were some doses available at the vigil, along with fentanyl test strips, for people to take home in case of an overdose emergency.
The letter from Governor Mills also encouraged Maine residents to participate in Overdose Awareness Day.
“Now, therefore, be it resolved that I, Janet Mills, governor of the state of Maine, do recognize August 31, 2022, as International Overdose Awareness Day throughout the state, and I encourage all citizens to take part in activities and observances designed to remember those we have lost, to increase awareness of drug overdoses, and to join the global efforts to reduce the death toll associated with drug overdoses,” said Smith, quoting the Governor.
Another speaker at the event was Ellsworth City Manager and Police Chief Glenn Moshier, who spoke about addiction and overdose from the perspective of law enforcement.
“It’s a huge subject in the world of law enforcement and it’s a huge subject in the city of Ellsworth,” Moshier said. “We are seeing that we are trending in an upward direction so far this year. In the city of Ellsworth we’ve had over 15 overdoses that we’ve responded to.”
Moshier spoke about his own experiences in overdose situations as a police officer, and the impact that seeing people overdose has had on him.
“In my 20-year career in law enforcement here in the city of Ellsworth, I’ve been to far too many overdoses, far too many fatal overdoses,” Moshier said. “I personally have administered Naloxone to more people than I care to remember. It’s always such a tragedy, and what I’ve seen over the years of the impact of substance abuse disorder amongst families and individuals…has really scarred me.”
“It’s something that I will never, ever be able to walk away from and forget,” Moshier added.
Also speaking at the vigil were several community members who had lost loved ones to overdoses. Those whose lives and families have been affected by substance use and overdoses shared the sadness, helplessness, and stigma that families face during a fatal overdose.
“We really want to be just spreading the word,” Alteri said. “People think that overdose can’t happen to them, they think that it doesn’t impact them, but it can happen to anybody.”