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Indiana’s drug epidemic: Fatal overdoses decrease in 2018, but some aren’t celebrating yet

Opioid overdoses are now more deadly than breast cancer
Posted at 7:00 AM, Oct 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-24 23:39:03-04

INDIANAPOLIS — After increasing from 2011 to 2017, the number of people in Indiana who died from an opioid-related overdose decreased in 2018.

While the news may seem like something to celebrate, those working to fight the drug epidemic say they aren’t celebrating yet because there is still work to be done.

Entering recovery is often something emotionally life-changing for those who are suffering from a substance abuse disorder.

In about three and a half years, Kyle Morris went from being homeless and suffering from a substance abuse disorder, to entering recovery, to building a team of real estate agents, and was able to surprise his wife for her 40th birthday with a trip to Hawaii.

Morris says this was one of the first times he realized his life was changing for the better.

“I cried twice the first day we were there and on the last day,” Morris said. “It was that emotional of a change. It hit me like a ton of bricks about how much my life has changed.”

Homeless to Hawaii -- A story of fighting a substance abuse disorder:

For 20 years, 38-year-old Kyle Morris says he was addicted to opioids.

While some people become addicted to opioids after being prescribed them, Morris says this wasn’t the case for him. What started out as drinking or using illegal drugs like marijuana and hallucinogens with his friends in high school eventually led to an addiction to opioids.

Morris says he had a job and a life he loved, but quit his job and chose the drugs and homelessness instead.

"I resigned a job that I loved, that was a very good job where I gave back to others as well," Morris said. "I absolutely loved that job, but I couldn't even function as an employee quite honestly. Then I couldn't function as a husband, I couldn't function as a father, I wasn't being around, I wasn't present, I wasn't showing up. I was sick a lot."

When Morris first started getting treatment, he started with medicated-assisted maintenance treatment.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, medicated-assisted treatment is a combination of behavioral therapy and medications to help treat a substance abuse disorder.

“It got to the point where things got bad, so I went some maintenance therapy and my life got better—significantly better honestly,” Morris said.

The improvement didn't last.

“At some point, I wasn’t using all of the tools that were available to me for the maintenance," Morris said. "Instead of using the treatment provided by medication-assisted treatment, I was just taking the medication instead of the rest of the treatment involved.”

Because of this, Morris says he went back to buying drugs illegally. He started to realize how it is affecting his ability to do his job and be a parent.

This is when Morris became homeless and realized he needed help. He went to seven different treatment centers and got back on medication-assisted treatment.

“My life just took off,” Morris said. “It was amazing actually.”

Recovery in Indiana: Kyle's story

Morris now works to help other people in recovery, connecting with them through different community organizations and events to help them enter and stay in recovery. He said it's important to give back.

But Morris wasn't always so open to sharing his story. Because of the stigma surrounding substance abuse disorders, Morris was reluctant to tell his employer about his recovery journey when he first started working as a real estate agent. He thought that by sharing his story he would be putting his job in jeopardy and changing the way his colleagues looked at him.

"It allowed me to be much more open about my passed struggles and not worry about any kind of retribution about that," Morris said.

When Morris did share his story of recovery with his colleagues, he was shocked by their response. They were supportive, and Morris says he is now able to help other people in his career field who are in recovery, too.

Recovery is something Morris has gotten his entire family involved in. While neither his kids nor his wife suffer from a substance abuse disorder, he often brings them along to recovery events. His wife also helps other spouses who have a partner suffering from a substance abuse disorder or in recovery.

Once he started sharing his recovery story, he began connecting with other people on social media and in the community. Morris said people will hear his story and reach out to him for guidance or just to connect.

“We need to see more stories of people who have gotten better so that way when somebody is struggling, they know who to reach out to,” Morris said.

The stigma around substance abuse disorder and mental health is one thing Morris hopes will change. He said it is crucial to helping fight the drug epidemic and getting more people into recovery.

It can be difficult for those who don’t know anyone who has a substance abuse disorder to understand how complex the issues those in recovery or suffering from a disorder face, Morris said.

“Everybody just needs to be more open about it and you would be blown away by how invasive this is in our culture and our society instead of just looking at something as small as overdose rates,” Morris said. “It is so much more infectious than that. It affects every little bit of our society, people just don’t want to look at it.”

One thing Morris said people can do to help those in recovery or suffering from a disorder is to educate yourself on what you are involved in and how the drug epidemic affects them.

“Once you are educated, help people," Morris said. “That’s what we need to do."

The data:

According to data from the Indiana State Department of Health, 1,176 people in Indiana died from an overdose involving an opioid in 2017. Of those deaths, 232 occurred in Marion County.

Preliminary data from ISDH shows the statewide number declined to 995 in 2018, with 260 deaths occurring in Marion County.

Infogram

The data from the state health department counts an overdose death as one that involves an opioid.

Opioids can include heroin, fentanyl, hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, opium, prescription opioids and other unspecified narcotics.

According to provisional data from the Indiana State Department of Health, the rate of fatal overdoses involving an opioid is 14.8, a decline from the 2018 provisional data.

Indiana’s response:

In 2018, several Indiana counties were granted to be part of the Overdose Response Project from the ISDH. The project works with hospitals in participating counties to analyze emergency department data to identify trends in overdoses and alert local partners, like the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and Indianapolis EMS.

Overdose Response Project Counties
Clark
Dearborn
Fayette
Howard
Jackson
Madison
Marion
Monroe
Montgomery
St. Joseph
Tippecanoe

Those agencies are also alerted to disease outbreaks through the Electronic Surveillance System for the Early Notification of Community-based Epidemics.

State and local agencies said this data is crucial to help deploy resources to areas where outbreaks or new trends are spotted.

“The data that’s collected is helpful in knowing where to deploy resources,” Jim McClelland, the executive director of drug prevention, treatment and enforcement for Indiana said. “It’s actually available on our website where you can see the hotspots. Where might we need to better deploy resources? Where might there be a bad batch of something that is available on the streets and too many people are getting it and we are seeing an increase in the number of overdoses?”

McClelland was appointed by Gov. Eric Holcomb on his first day in office. The new position was created with the goal of helping to coordinate different state and local agencies to work together towards the same goals.

“The idea was to help to coordinate, align and focus the resources of all of the various state agencies that affect substance abuse and related issues,” McClelland said. “Make sure everybody is working on the same page, we are all moving in the same direction so we can have the greatest impact possible in dealing with in particular the opioid epidemic.”

Helping those who have an opioid abuse disorder enter recovery and stay in recovery can be a tough process.

Since McClelland has served in his new role, he said the state has put a huge emphasis on opening more treatment centers and connecting people to effective treatment options to help them enter and stay in recovery.

“And now that we have been able to put a lot more pieces in place, what we are about now is really trying to connect them more effectively so we have a smooth continuum of services from intake through treatment, through recovery supports and with links to wrap around services for these individuals and often times members of their families,” McClelland said.

While some people may say the decline in fatal overdoses is a reason to cheer, McClelland says the state is encouraged, but not celebrating.

“When we see how many people are continuing to die of overdoses, we are not celebrating,” McClelland said. “We’ve got to continue doing what we can to build positive momentum, let’s continue to drive that death rate down as low as we possibly can and that requires, really as Gov. Holcomb has called for, an all hands on deck response.”

McClelland credits the decline in fatal overdoses in 2018 to a number of things — including access to Naloxone, treatment, community-based organizations and more.

“We are not throwing people away,” McClelland said. “We are not doing that. There’s value to every single life and we are doing what we can to help individuals improve their lives and make the most of their opportunities.”

Indiana State Department of Health provides Narcan

Since Gov. Holcomb took office in January 2017, he has funded for Indiana coroners to perform detailed toxicology for all suspected drug overdose cases to determine a more specific cause of death, according to a report from the state.

Historically, drug overdose cases were listed as “unknown drug death.”

Since this initiative has been implemented by the state, the state says this led to a 58 percent reduction in the number of causes of deaths listed as an unknown drug death.

Marion County law enforcement:

Several law enforcement agencies work in Marion County, as well as the state, to help keep drugs from coming into the county and work to get drugs out. Agencies like the ATF, FBI, DEA, Indiana State Police down to the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.

At IMPD, there is a unit whose main focus is on keeping drugs from ever entering Marion County and Indianapolis. The IMPD Criminal Interdiction Unit is one people often do not hear about because they often work on climbing the ladder in a drug ring. This can be difficult to do if their investigations are publicized too much.

The CIU works with federal agents to intercept drugs coming into or traveling through Indianapolis. The unit often focuses on stopping and intercepting large amounts of drugs or currency.

On September 8, a CIU detective pulled over a semi-tractor trailer on Interstate 465 to investigate a traffic violation and found more than $2.1 million worth of cocaine inside the trailer registered in Canada.

PREVIOUS | IMPD seizes $2.1 million worth of cocaine during traffic stop

While detectives say they will never be able to stop 100 percent of the drugs from entering the county and stop everybody from using them, they say every investigation they conduct helps to stop the flow of drugs in the county.

“I think in doing our job we are doing our part in cleaning up the neighborhoods to save people’s lives by taking the narcotics off the street,” IMPD Det. Miguel Roa said.

IMPD working to fight drug epidemic

“It may be a sad thing to say but we will never win the drug war,” Roa said. “It’s just continuous. There is always a different method that these narcotics traffickers are trying — whether that be how to conceal narcotics or how to get them into neighborhoods. There is always something new to bring them into these communities that don’t need them.”

While they don’t get large seizures everyday, detectives feel like they are making a dent in the drug supply in Indianapolis when they do get large seizures.

The detectives don’t just focus on one type of drug and are always looking to find spikes in seizures or an increase in the usage of different drugs. Recently, authorities have noticed cocaine starting to come back into the streets.

Authorities want to remind people they help keep drugs off the streets by anonymously sending in tips to drug investigators. Those tips can be crucial in helping detectives intercept the drugs or finish an investigation.

Tips can be reported anonymously to drug investigators by calling 317-327-3673 (DOPE) or by calling Crime Stoppers of Central Indiana at 317-262-8477(TIPS).

How and where to get help:

Gov. Holcomb hopes to have a drug treatment center within an hour’s drive from every Hoosier. By the end of 2018, the state approved legislation to bring the total number of drug treatment centers in Indiana to 27.

The state says drug treatment centers are coming to Delaware, Hendricks, Howard, Knox and La Porte counties and four more locations are still in progress.

The United Way started “211” service which helps connect people to different services they may need, like employment, assistance with housing or utilities and more.

The Indiana 211 service also helps connect people to different reentry programs. McClelland says the state is working on growing the service.

In 2018, the state partnered with OpenBeds and Indiana 211 to help find open beds for people seeking treatment. Since it launched, the state says more than 8,100 referrals have been made for treatment services and support groups.

Naloxone, also known as Narcan, can be a life-saving opioid overdose reversal drug. Narcan is available without a prescription to anyone who would like to carry it.

To see a full map or places where you can get the drug, visit here. You can learn more about Narcan, including when and how to administer it here.

Those seeking more information treatment you can visit Recovery Indiana’s treatment website.

The on-going epidemic:

It’s an epidemic far larger than most people realize. The issues are so complex it takes several organizations and people to work together to help fight the ongoing crisis. In order to continue saving lives, officials and those in recovery remain hopeful they can make a difference.

"We need to help people," Morris said. "These are not less than human beings.”

Andrew Smith is a Real-Time Editor for RTV6. You can reach him at andrew.smith@wrtv.com or @AndrewSmithNews on Twitter, or on Facebook.