LEBANON — Hundreds of addiction stakeholders from all over the state gathered at the Boone County Fairgrounds for a day-long discussion and information session on opioids in rural Indiana.
Friday’s forum, organized by the AgrIInstitute, an Indiana non-profit organization for agriculture leadership, brought together state officials, agriculture leaders, health professionals and many others to discuss what impact they see with opioids in rural Indiana.
The speaker list included a couple of familiar faces. One was Boone County Sheriff Mike Nielsen, who spoke about the success of the Boone County Jail’s drug treatment program. A panel discussion also featured Kassie Frazier, executive director of Sylvia's Child Advocacy Center.
The first part of the day focused on the facts and harsh truths of opioids. The second half of the day focused on what is working in different communities and how the audience could take ideas home to make a difference in their own communities.
Several speakers emphasized the rural impact of opioid use. Deena Dodd of the Indiana Rural Health Association provided startling statistics illustrating that opioids touch people of all incomes and ages. However, the statistics showed white people at increasing risk of becoming intravenous drug users, rising 16 percent over the last 10 years.
“They think that users are a certain group that is using and not contributing to society. But I’m here to tell you, it is not just ‘those people,’” Dodd said. “This touches every part of our society.”
Anne Hazlett, an Indiana native who is now with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, listed a few reasons opioids may be so attractive to rural people: lack of healthcare resources, the prevalence of physically demanding jobs and isolation. Others said addiction is turned to out of desperation or because of an underlying mental health problem.
While no one claimed they had a singular solution to the rural drug problem, each shared what they are personally doing. From the state executive level, Indiana drug czar Jim McClelland said his main function is putting together the pieces of the puzzle. The ideal end result, he said, is a network of local solutions that prop up Hoosier families.
“If we as a society don’t do enough to mitigate the impact on all of these children, I fear we are going to pay a heavy price down the road,” McClelland said. “The most effective solution will focus on children, youth and their parents.”
McClelland said he has three priorities at the moment: keep people alive, make resources available and attack the drug supply. Long-term keys will be attacking drug supply and demand.
State Sen. Jim Merritt, who represents portions of Hamilton and Marion counties, said he has proposed several bills to combat opioids this year: a statewide drug takeback program, more secure pill bottles and a bill requiring county coroners to track overdose deaths. Merritt hopes the legislature will take action on opioids this year.
“We have 150 people (in the legislature) who are concerned about opioids. I believe that if opioids make spots on your face, make your nose grow, or make your hair purple, we would be in crisis mode,” Merritt said. “The legislature gets it. I think you will hear a lot this year. But it is up to us, in our churches and our schools, to be talking about this.”
At the local level, many actions are being taken from many different perspectives. Nielsen spoke at length about what the Boone County Sheriff’s Office is doing to combat the problem.
Nielsen said 64,000 died in America from an overdose in 2016, roughly the same population as Boone County.
“Every year we are killing the population of Boone County in overdose deaths,” Nielsen said. “That is unbelievable to me. In 2017, they believe it will be even higher, around 72,000 — and that’s scary.”
Of those deaths, 18 people died from overdose in Boone County. Nielsen said the number is likely even higher, because Boone County residents who overdose are sometimes transported to Indianapolis for care. While many have died, Nielsen said 56 people have been saved from opioid overdose since BCSO started carrying the opioid antidote in 2015.
The star of his remarks was the jail treatment program, which includes many different options to help inmates with their recovery. The forum was not the first time Nielsen has spoken about the program, but it was possibly the shortest, noting he had to boil two hours of information down to a 15-minute presentation.
The jail’s program has grown over the years and now includes recovery support groups, Bible studies, educational resources and even 24-hour access to mental health services.
“We have to rehabilitate those inmates mentally and physically,” Nielsen said. “We have to get those inmates ready to go back into society.”
While the jail treatment programs work great for their time in jail, Nielsen said there are not enough resources once inmates are released. Because of that, many end up back at the jail, 78 percent to be exact, according to 2016 statistics.
Nielsen said that high recidivism rate is unacceptable, especially when considering the national rate is only 64 percent. Nielsen said his new goal is to reduce the recidivism rate by 18 percent in the next 18 months.
“This is ridiculous, we have to have a change,” Nielsen said. “Believe it or not, people in this county still think there isn’t a drug problem in this community. It is up to us to take this information back to our communities.”