Guest Column: Local organizations lead the charge against opioid addiction

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April 23, 2018 | by Amalia Arms 
Note: Amalia is a student at Anderson University
Addiction has gripped America. In what has been called the greatest drug crisis in U.S. history, deaths caused by opioid overdoses have nearly tripled since 2002. In 2016, opioids were responsible for more overdose deaths than any other year on record. 
The devastating effects of this trend are being felt in communities across the nation. One such community is Indiana’s Madison County. In Madison County, opioid abuse has reached historic levels causing unemployment to skyrocket and placing enormous strain on the child welfare system. 
In response to the onslaught of opioid addiction that threatens their community, local hospitals and organizations such as United Way of Madison County (UWMC) are bringing their communities together to fight back. 
Austin Ross, who works with UWMC, is a member of AmeriCorps—an organization supported by the federal government that is “helping others and meeting critical needs in the community.” 
Ross has noted significant changes in the types of convictions being brought in Madison County over the years—changes that are indicative of an increase in opioid addiction in the community. 
“Most cases about ten years ago were for neglect or, every once in a while, child molesting,” he said. “Now, between half and 75 percent are drug related.” 
Ross has been researching the economic and societal effects of the increase in opioid abuse in Madison County, and he explains that the upward trend in opioid-related convictions has caused unemployment rates to rise. He says that most employers are unwilling to hire members of the community whose applications include a felony conviction. 
“I’ve been going out into the community to talk to nurses, recovered addicts and law enforcement to see what’s disrupting the community,” he says. “I’m trying to find out how people feel about it, what resources are around and where the gaps are so we can create a bigger picture to formulate a strategy to fight.” 
Ross says that the complexities of the opioid crisis require members of the community from different backgrounds to work together, and advocates for education that would strengthen their ability to rally against opioid addiction. 
“It’s such a complicated issue that it needs a lot of people in different fields,” he says. “There are people in the medical and treatment community who help put people through rehab, treatment and recovery. There’s also law enforcement, since opioid abusers are committing an illegal act under federal law. School systems and parents are also involved for prevention and education.” 
“Doctors and nurses are trying to figure out whether or not to report someone because it might not be in that person’s best interest and could harm them in the long-run,” says Ross. “Judges, prosecutors and police are trying to understand medical issues that they’re not trained to understand.” 
Nancy Vaughan, the president of UWMC, says “the opioid crisis came out of nowhere and started overtaking all other substance abuse issues.” 
Vaughan says there is a serious need for opioid detox beds in local hospitals— a detox bed being a place where members of the community suffering from opioid addiction can go through the rehab and recovery process. 
“Sheriff (Scott) Mellinger has been very proactive in reaching out to the nonprofit network because, since we don’t have those detox beds, the jail becomes the detox center,” said Vaughan. “The people who’ve been arrested, who detox in the jail with no medical supervision, are then released back onto the street and tend to go back to using. There’s a high incidence of overdose when they do that, so the hospitals are seeing the same people coming in for overdoses. It becomes a vicious cycle.” 
Vaughan also places great emphasis on the importance of educating and bringing awareness to the stigmatization of drug abuse. 
“One of the things that comes up in every conversation we have is action that can be taken about the stigma associated with drug abuse,” Vaughan said. “A lot of people become addicted, not because they went out to use illegal substances, but because they had a legitimate prescription for pain medicine, were dealing with legitimate pain and became addicted because there was a lack of understanding about the dangers.” 
Research conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse corroborates Vaughan’s analysis by showing that more than half of all overdose deaths involving opioid drugs in the U.S. in 2015 were attributed to prescribed opioid pain relievers. 
Vaughan encourages different organizations within the community to be sympathetic to one another in order to institute change. She explains that the Health Department had a needle exchange program last year that was shut down by the County Council because, from a law enforcement perspective, the needle exchange enabled users to continue to break the law. The primary reason of medical professionals for the needle exchange, however, was to prevent the spreading of HIV and Hepatitis C through the needle sharing that tends to take place between drug addicts. 
“If they’re going to be using, we at least want to stop the spread of those illnesses,” says 
Vaughan. “It just shows this huge divide.” 
“Addicts may be breaking the law, but they’re addicts and they need help,” she elaborated. “Putting them in jail doesn’t solve the problem. Everybody knows that, but there has to be some will to come together and figure out how to solve problems together without pointing fingers and placing blame.” 
If experts from different fields can learn to empathize and work with one another, Madison County will have a fighting chance in the battle against the opioid crisis that threatens their community.