USM in Portland to launch center for students in addiction recovery

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PORTLAND — There are places in the city where people coping with substance use disorder can get help, as well as resources offered outside the city.

But where does a college student turn for help? How does a student struggling with substance use disorder find their way out?

A new program at the University of Southern Maine intends to provide the resources right on campus when the Recovery Oriented Campus Center opens in August.

Andrew Kiezulas, a 35-year-old student in recovery, was a driving force behind the center. He’s now in his senior year, studying chemistry, and said the typical college “party” environment can be hostile toward recovery and sobriety.

“We’re really trying to normalize recovery,” Kiezulas, the center’s student recovery liaison, said.

Danielle Vayenas, the university’s director of communications, confirmed that the center would be open in time for the fall semester. She said USM’s counseling center worked with Kiezulas to create the center.

“It was something that was obviously a passion of his and a concern of his that was not being addressed on campus,” Vayenas said.

Kiezulas said the ROCC is the first college space of its kind in the state. And the need is great, he said, because there are hundreds of students in recovery at USM alone.

“There’s a lot of stigma associated with substance use and substance misuse,” he said. “Often communities don’t want to admit that a problem exists.”

But when a community does recognize the problem, Kiezulas said the blame is most often shifted to the individual, and the community avoids responsibility. But Kiezulas said USM saw it could help treat a community illness, which he called substance abuse disorder, and help “engage and re-engage students who are seeking connections.”

“(We’ve) been working with different (administrators), helping them understand what recovery is and what it looks like and why it’s so important,” he said.

In order for that to happen, people with substance abuse disorder need to feel safe enough to seek help, which Kiezulas said is often not the case in Maine.

A recovery-ready environment, he said, provides community resources where people can get help. The ROCC will offer social, psychological and health care resources, counseling, meditation, healthy eating groups and athletic activities.

Kiezulas knows personally the need for a resource center like the one USM will offer. He injured his back in 2007, and with that came prescribed opiates, to which he developed a physical dependency.

“I needed relief; I found it,” Kiezulas said. “(But) the relief I found became less and less effective, until it didn’t work at all.”

Kiezulas, originally from Massachusetts, said the prospect of living with the level of pain he experienced had become unbearable.

“The idea of not living became more and more reasonable, and unfortunately more appealing,” he said.

He tried to purposely overdose.

“Fortunately it did not work, and that’s when I reached out for help,” he said.

Kiezulas encourages anyone who needs it to seek the help they need at the center. He said he has heard of people who feel safe enough to ask, but don’t want to take up a space in the program by “stealing someone else’s seat.” But he promised there will be room for anyone who asks.

“You deserve it,” he said. “You are worth it.”

The ROCC received a $40,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which Kiezulas said the university matched. Vayenas also confirmed that USM matched the grant. The center doesn’t have a physical location yet, although Kiezulas said the choices are being narrowed down. The school has also named a coordinator for the ROCC.

“The community is changing,” he said. “USM, they get it. They are empowering us to keep moving forward. They’ve helped me stay sober through the collegiate experience … which can be extremely stressful.”

Kiezulas said he is also working with other Maine colleges to help with their growing student recovery groups, and to create a network across college campuses.

“Recovery is possible,” he said, “and recovery in college is also possible.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Andrew Kiezulas, right, follows guidance from Katie Tomer during a yoga session Monday, July 25, in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park. Kiezulas is the student recovery liaison for the Recovery Oriented Campus Center at the University of Southern Maine, and Tomer is a yoga and meditation teacher at the center, which will open in August.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.