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Community group discusses improvements in addressing substance use in Southern Indiana

People sit at a table for a panel discussion Monday in Jeffersonville.
Aprile Rickert
Clark County CARES kicked off it's eighth annual Drug Facts Week Monday, with a panel discussion on the state of substance use in the area and recent improvements to resources. From L-R: Clark County Circuit Court No. 2 Judge Brad Jacobs; Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel; Barb Anderson, director at Haven House Services; Maj. Josh Lynch with the Jeffersonville Police Department; Beth Keeney, CEO at LifeSpring Health Systems; and Coleen Nelms, admissions and discharge coordinator at LifeSpring Health Systems Turning Point Center, who is also in long term recovery.

When community members Barb Anderson and Carolyn King started grassroots group Clark County CARES eight years ago, it was in response to a quickly growing opioid problem in Southern Indiana.

Anderson was among the panelists at the kickoff event Monday for the organization’s eighth annual Drug Facts Week, where speakers discussed the state of substance use in Clark County — including new programs and support needed to continue the fight.

“We knew that the people in our community had the ability to deliver services, they [just] didn't have all the resources they needed,” Anderson said. “And that was the goal — change systems so that that money would be made available, and it has become available [in the] years that we've been doing it.”

The group has grown to include people in recovery, health care professionals, lawmakers and law enforcement. They’ve worked for nearly a decade to educate the community, reduce stigma surrounding addiction and build support for treatment and harm reduction programs.

In 2016, Clark County saw a large number of overdose deaths, which dropped over the next several years until a surge during the pandemic seen across the country. Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel said overdoses have again dropped — 23% over the last year — but overdose deaths remain flat, with 74 last year.

“And I think that’s a testament to more dangerous substances out there,” Yazel said during the panel discussion. But he and others added the work they’ve done has created pathways for more support as the drug landscape changes.

“It just hits me, though, how far we’ve come over the years,” Yazel said. “Some of the things we were talking about that were really cutting edge a few years ago are [now] kind of essentially the standard of care.”

Initiatives have included getting naloxone — the opioid overdose reversal drug — into the hands of community members and first responders, creating support and follow up systems for people who go to the emergency room after an overdose, and creating and maintaining the syringe services program.

Over the past two years, the Jeffersonville Police Department has also partnered with LifeSpring Health Systems for Project CARE to connect people with substance use to services, rather than treating the issue only as punitive, as has been the case historically across the U.S.

Jeffersonville Police Maj. Josh Lynch said if officers respond to an overdose or other call where they identify a person struggling with addiction, they can now refer them to the Project CARE staff.

He said since mid-2021, officers have identified 365 people who may need help. Of those, 214 have been connected to services.

“It is amazing … as 214 families that hopefully can make the turn and head in the right direction,” Lynch said.

Kari Thom Carter has been coming to Clark County CARES events for years, as she’s navigated how to help her daughter who’s struggled with addiction. Carter said she’s seen resources improve, especially over the past two years. During previous trips to the emergency room with her daughter, it was typical to just get a card with information on where to get help.

On their most recent trip, there was more support.

“I saw … the nurses and the physicians really work towards trying to get her there to stay there to detox, to talk to someone,” Carter said. “That was something that, in the past, really wasn’t happening.”

Coleen Nelms, now in longtime recovery, was also among the panelists. She was first prescribed opioids when she was 10 years old for a debilitating condition she was born with. She became addicted and overdosed three times over the next several years. The second time, family members left her as she was overdosing. The third time, she went into a coma.

“What got me sober was when I woke up three days later realizing that if they hadn’t Narcan’d me twice, I’d be dead,” she said.

Nelms now works in recovery and said people in active addiction can still take steps toward sobriety or safer use, even if they’re not yet ready to stop completely.

“How about we cut down that use?” she said. “How about we get some fentanyl test strips? How about we go to the syringe sites? How about we just talk? That's the main thing is just talking and if you're not ready, that's OK.”

For the full Drug Facts Week schedule, visit Clark County CARES on Facebook.

Coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by Samtec, Inc. and the Hazel & Walter T. Bales Foundation.

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.

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