The idea that people who don’t feel welcome in a community are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol is at the heart of two public forums that will be held in the next couple of days in Gardiner and Augusta.

The first forum is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday at the Greater Gardiner Boys and Girls Club. The second will be held at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Buker Community Center in Augusta. Each will last two hours and include free child care, a light supper 30 minutes before the start time and group discussions.

The meetings are part of a three-year project undertaken by Healthy Communities of the Capital Area to determine what the greatest health-related problems affecting the area are, as well as how to address them.

The first question was not hard to answer.

“Substance abuse is the biggest health issue affecting towns from Gardiner to Augusta,” said Joanne Joy, executive director of the Gardiner-based health group.

That grim fact was reinforced late last week, when the Maine attorney general’s office released data showing drug overdose deaths continue to skyrocket in Maine, fueled by use of opioids such as heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkillers.

There were 189 drug overdose deaths this year in Maine through June 30, a 50 percent increase over the same period in 2015, when there were 126 overdose deaths, according to the attorney general’s office.

But how to address the drug crisis is a more complicated question — to which there have been no easy answers.

Many conversations about the opiate crisis focus on the availability of treatment opportunities for drug users and the punishment of drug dealers by the authorities.

But the meetings this week are focusing on a different aspect of the drug crisis: the factors that can make people more likely to start abusing substances in the first place.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse has identified a number of factors that increase the risk a child will abuse drugs. Those factors include early aggressive behavior, a lack of parental supervision, poverty, substance abuse and the availability of drugs.

At the forums Monday and Tuesday, Joy said, area residents and agencies are invited to brainstorm about development of low-cost community programs and outreach efforts that will make those at risk of substance abuse feel more welcome in society — and in an indirect way, less inclined to turn to drugs or alcohol.

In researching ways to reduce the risk factors associated with substance abuse, Joy said, her group has interviewed foster families, teens in local schools, Head Start program providers, people in recovery, health care providers and others with relevant perspectives.

“We’re figuring out how to include low-income families and people in recovery in things that already exist,” Joy said. “We want to reduce stigma about substance abuse disorders and poverty and try to cross-train and cross-educate professionals, social services and schools in what happens to people when they are exposed to trauma, so we understand each other better.”

Outdoor activities already are available for area youths, Joy said, but possible solutions are outdoor offerings that are more available and inviting to children in low-income or foster families.

To identify those at-risk people more efficiently, Joy also cited several organizations that provide training in useful skills — such as reducing stigma — that could expand their training to police departments, public assistance agencies, educators and others groups at little extra cost.

“We want to start planning about how we promote things differently, what language needs to change,” Joy said.

Joy’s group has prepared the project using grant funding from the Maine Health Access Foundation, she said.

Charles Eichacker — 621-5642

[email protected]

Twitter: @ceichacker

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