UNE hosts Southern Maine Harm Reduction Conference
The University of New England joined the City of Portland Public Health Division in bringing hundreds of students, faculty members, health care providers and advocates together for the Southern Maine Harm Reduction Conference.
The series of workshops and presentations provided information and strategies to reduce negative consequences of substance use and other high-risk behaviors. Wendy Chapkis, professor of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine gave the keynote address, “From Prohibiting ‘Vice’ to Promoting Public Health: The Promise of Harm Reduction.” Other topics discussed throughout the day included barriers to harm reduction in rural Maine, supportive health care interventions for sex workers, strategies for clients and patients who use drugs, screening and brief interventions and recovery-oriented housing.
Lila Maycock (M.S.W., ’19), who helped to organize this year’s conference, said harm reduction is essential for saving lives and healing communities. “There are many different pathways into recovery and it can look very different for each individual,” she said. “The fact that so many people showed up to learn, teach and discuss this practice in relation to emotional and physical wellbeing was incredible.”
“We need as many options as possible to work on substance misuse, especially around opioids,” said Selma Holden, M.D., M.P.H., associate clinical professor in the UNE College of Osteopathic Medicine. “At this point, we've had abstinence-only models that have been prevalent in the health professions and beyond, but there are many reasons why people get into problematic substance use. We need to have a variety of options available for people to meet them where they are in their recovery process.”
The conference was part of UNE’s Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) Grant, a program being implemented among health care providers nationwide. It is an evidence-based practice used to identify, reduce and prevent problematic use, abuse, and dependence on alcohol and illicit drugs. The goal is to equip all health care providers with the training to have conversations about substance use in a non-threatening environment, with the philosophy that intervention can occur in even the briefest encounter with a sensitive, caring and professional health care provider.
“Harm reduction moves beyond an all-or-nothing perspective to an understanding that substance use exists on a continuum from healthy to unhealthy,” said Professor Clay Graybeal, Ph.D., M.S.W., director of UNE’s SBIRT program. “By engaging students across diverse health professions, our goal is to ensure that every individual is screened at some point for their use of substances to determine the level of risk or harm. From a perspective of harm reduction, our goal is to provide education, support and when needed, referral for treatment to those interested in reducing their risk and increasing healthy behaviors.”
Olivia Patsos, M.S., a first-year student in UNE’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, said her biggest takeaway was learning how to communicate with people who are stigmatized, such as those employed in the sex industry, struggling with addiction, or lacking access to health care. “For me, it was important to recognize these issues, listen to those who have dealt firsthand with being a member in those communities or who have directly served them, and to collaborate with other professionals on future plans to implement to aid these communities.”
“We have to be aware of the stigma that we often unconsciously apply toward people who are using opiates or any other substances,” said Holden. “And by being aware of the stigmas that exist, hopefully we can become more compassionate health care providers and help people change their behaviors in a direction that's beneficial for their health.”