Hope, optimism and promising new possibilities seem in short supply at this time of social distancing, separation and isolation. They appear particularly distant and unattainable for some of our family members, friends and neighbors suffering from substance use disorder and mental illness.

COVID-19 has changed our lives and society. It’s caused significant worry, stress and anxiety — giving rise to suicides and intensifying the opioid crisis in Maine and across the country. Deaths from overdose are on pace to set another tragic record. After dropping for the first time in 2018, they increased again last year and are hitting new highs in 2020.

We continue to be in the midst of a drug epidemic. Unfortunately, it’s being obscured by a broader health pandemic. As we focus on COVID-19 and take the necessary precautions, we can’t lose sight of the opioid crisis nor allow it to be relegated to the back burner.

What’s required at this moment? Connections and opportunities. They’re needed more than ever, but appear out of reach in this uncertain time. For individuals in early recovery, connections and opportunities often make the difference between stability and relapse; between health and overdose; between life and death.

The coronavirus arrived at a time when state government and other stakeholders in the opioid battle had made substantial strides in raising public awareness, developing partnerships, galvanizing support for innovative strategies, and leveraging resources.

Creation of the Governor’s Office on Opioid Response elevated this terrible problem to a prominent place on the public policy agenda. Medicaid expansion opened the doors of substance use disorder treatment facilities and mental health clinics to thousands of individuals who were previously unable to afford counseling and medication. The state’s emphasis on training recovery coaches and distributing life-saving naloxone has been essential in preventing deaths and giving many Mainers a future.

But more is needed, so additional steps have been taken.

Last summer, the Maine Department of Labor approached Eastern Maine Development Corp. (www.EMDC.org) to collaborate in writing a grant proposal — seeking emergency relief from the U.S. Department of Labor to fight the opioid crisis. Earlier this year, Maine was awarded $6.2 million to change the trajectory of many lives.

The state’s new Connecting with Opportunities Initiative is opening doors to education, training and employment — giving greater stability and added purpose to life. The goal is to serve nearly 700 individuals and bolster the workforce needed to address the crisis.

Emergency relief jobs called “peer connectors” have been created to assist initiative participants. Peers are individuals in recovery who offer one-on-one guidance, encouragement and a guiding hand in overcoming obstacles on the journey to meaningful employment. In addition to a peer connector, each participant benefits from a workforce development specialist with expertise in career planning.

Significant financial support is available to those who participate. It can be used for education, training programs and employment preparation. Supportive services are also available to make sure life challenges don’t derail the process. Funding can address transportation, child care, technology, emergency housing and other needs.

And though Connecting with Opportunities targets people impacted by opioid use disorder (personally or indirectly), it’s also available to unemployed workers who haven’t been impacted but wish to enter a field that serves to diminish the crisis, such as drug counseling, recovery coaching or mental health care.

EMDC is seeking partnerships with organizations, businesses, professional groups and non-profit agencies. And we’re encouraging referrals of people who could benefit from this promising effort. To request information, schedule a presentation or to make a referral, please email Doug Dunbar ([email protected]) or call 299-5626.

Hope, connections and opportunities. They can be lifesaving. Join us in making them a reality for more individuals and families across Maine.

Lee Umphrey is president and CEO of Eastern Maine Development Corporation. Doug Dunbar is EMDC’s recovery and re-entry workforce specialist. 

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