Event focuses on community’s role in addressing addiction, mental health | News

NEW ALBANY — A recent event highlighted ways to enhance community support for Southern Indiana residents facing issues such as addiction and mental illness.

Clark & ​​Floyd System of Care presented “Building a Compassionate Community with Eyes Wide Open” Thursday at The Grand in downtown New Albany. The event featured guest speaker Douglas Huntsinger, who is the executive director of the state’s Drug Prevention, Treatment and Enforcement program and chairman of the Indiana Commission to Combat Drug Abuse.

The event featured a variety of local agencies, organizations and individuals involved in the effort to address issues of substance abuse and mental health in Indiana and in Clark and Floyd counties.

Huntsinger discussed statewide efforts to tackle the drug crisis. The state’s “three-pronged approach” focused on prevention, treatment and enforcement is meant to lead people into recovery, he said.

He noted that the state has dedicated millions of dollars to serve “our most vulnerable Hoosiers with mental health and substance use disorders,” including providing substance abuse treatment for Indiana residents in the Medicaid program.

“Since January of 2018, more than 300,000 Hoosiers have taken advantage of the treatment through Medicaid,” Huntsinger. “This is an immense investment totaling $656 million dollars. We’ve decreased our prescription opioid rates by 23%, and we’ve increased our residential treatment beds by 213% since 2017.

Gaps still exist across the state, he said, and there is a need for growth in areas such as outreach, education and treatment for Indiana residents with mental illness and substance abuse disorders. The prevalence of fentanyl use has been a particular problem during the pandemic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was an estimated 105,000 drug overdose deaths across the country in the 12-month period ending in October of 2021, which is a record high. Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl made up about two-thirds of those deaths.

“Fentanyl has had a dramatic rise, becoming the leading cause of overdoses nationwide, and, frankly, in most all of our communities,” Huntsinger said.

The state is emphasizing harm reduction efforts to tackle the issue as Indiana faces an “overwhelming presence of synthetic opioids,” he said.

Thursday’s event also included the story of a local peer recovery coach and her own journey in recovering from addiction. Laura Deaton works at Sunrise Recovery in Jeffersonville and Clarksville, as well as a peer recovery initiative called THRIVE. She shared her insights about the community’s role in supporting those facing addiction and mental illness.

Deaton is a former teacher who has struggled with alcoholism and addiction to methamphetamine. As a peer recovery coach, she works to offer hope to those who are recovering.

“That’s not the picture most people have in their mind, so I like to break that stigma,” she said. “In my unique perspective and position, I am able to share my addiction with people just like you, and I’m also able to go into those communities of people that are still struggling with addiction and I’m able to show them there is a way out. This doesn’t have to remain your story.”

There are many pathways to recovery, she said. She started her recovery journey through recovery programs while incarcerated in the Scott County Jail. When she found the same kind of programs upon leaving jail, she “could step right into a community of recovery that had already been established” while she was incarcerated.

“We didn’t get into addiction all by one decision — there were so many pathways to addiction, and there has to be so many pathways into recovery,” Deaton said.

Peer recovery coaches can “be a voice for those people who don’t have those voices yet,” she said.

“I have relationships now with a wonderful recovery community, I have relationships with judicial systems, I have relationships with in-patient facilities, with sober-living facilities — there are so many different ways that we have to have for people to recover and let them know that there isn’t only one path.”

People struggling with addiction tend to isolate, so relationships are essential to recovery, Deaton said. She feels Southern Indiana has a strong recovery community.

She focused on the opportunities she found through her “career in recovery.”

“Do we have challenges as people in recovery — absolutely,” she said. “There are certain jobs I cannot have because I have a felony record. I will never teach school again, but what my recovery has taught me is that rather than sit there and beat my head against a door that has already been closed, turn around and look at the opportunities like this one today that I can share my story and bring some awareness to addiction and recovery and trauma.”

Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel spoke about ongoing issues facing Southern Indiana. He said many community initiatives were put together to address the opioid crisis, and “it worked.” Overdose deaths and emergency room for behavioral health conditions and substance abuse visits dropped visits.

The pandemic “turned that whole dynamic upside down,” he said.

“One of the things that hit me so hard was after all that work, our overdose deaths being down 40% and things, the minute something upset the apple cart, it went right back to being where it was before,” Yazel said. “Our overdose numbers went back to where they were and things like that.”

The community stepped up again during the pandemic, Yazel said.

“We doubled down on the programs that were working, and we figured out new ones that kind of functioned well in our new normal,” he said. “I always think about substance use disorder in kind of three phases.”

He has seen improvement in areas such as access, he said

“We have public Narcan access all over the place…we have Community Aid Stations that have an AED, Stop the Bleed kit and Narcan kits all in the same locations,” Yazel said. “We’ve got all sorts of programming to basically keep people alive so they can access the health care system.”

Another phase includes “accessing the health care system to transition into stable recovery.” Recovery coaches play an integral role in this phase, he said, and it’s important to have multiple recovery options in a community.

“It’s not a one size fits all — everybody has a different journey, and being able to offer things across the board is very effective for us,” Yazel said.

The community still has room for growth in the phase of going from “stable recovery into community integration,” he said. This includes aspects such as employment, housing and transportation.

“Housing is a big issue for us down here — transitional housing as people access recovery,” he said. “I always say it’s like purchasing a brand new car and not getting the warranty. People have been through hell and back to get into recovery, and then we don’t have the basic things to allow them to integrate back into the community, so that’s some work we could continue to improve on.”

Yazel said there is still plenty of work to combat stigma associated with addiction and mental illness, including among health care providers.

“We just have to do better as a health care system,” he said.

Huntsinger mentioned opportunities to address the problem in Southern Indiana. For example, Jeffersonville and New Albania have decided to opt back into a national settlement with Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. New Albany is expected to receive about $250,000 from the settlement, and Jeffersonville is expected to receive $440,000, the News and Tribune reported earlier this week.

If all local units opt back into the state’s opioid settlement, Indiana could receive an estimated $507 million from pharmaceutical distributors over the next 18 years, according to Huntsinger.

The funds must be used for opioid abatement, he emphasizes.

“This money can’t go to pay for roads, it can’t go to build morgues or bigger jails — this money has to go to fixing the problem and delivering of services to individuals in need.”

Both Clark/Floyd System of CARE and Clark County CARES received $100,000 grants from the state earlier this year to “improve and enhance the collaboration and coordination with mental health services and substance-abuse-related efforts,” Huntsinger said.

“We’re working to provide them with necessary tools and resources they need to stay alive and ultimately, hopefully seek help,” he said. “Through our partnership with Overdose Lifeline, we’ve distributed over 128,000 doses of Naloxone to Hoosiers across the state, and in communities like Clark and Floyd counties, we continue to build out the treatment recovery framework.” We want to equip you with the tools that you need to improve and develop and coordinate these efforts.”

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