ADDICTED AND DYING: About this series

We’re increasingly addicted and dying. And the signs are all over our communities.

Syringes plug the drains of gas station bathrooms. Attendants have found people passed out on the floor, overdosed, or outside at the gas pumps with children in the back seat.

Officers spend extra time patrolling neighborhoods after repeated reports of break-ins and suspicious activity.

Grown women entering a shelter have never learned basic adult skills because they started using drugs in high school.

Elementary students start school unprepared and with emotional issues because they have been exposed to drugs either in the womb or during their formative years at home.

More than 1 in 10 Brown County children are living with a grandparent, putting Brown County within the top 10 counties in the state for grandparent custody. More than half of those placements statewide are because of parents’ drug use, the state Department of Child Services reports.

Tormented families are desperately trying to get help for sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. In many cases, they have to plan funerals instead.

A growing epidemic

No one is left untouched by the worst drug crisis in U.S. history.

In 2016, 42,000 Americans — or 115 people a day — died after overdosing on opioids, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s more than the number of deaths from breast cancer and prostate cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Three of those deaths were in Brown County in 2016. In 2017, there were three more.

The number of people who overdosed and didn’t die continues to climb, too: two in 2014, six in 2015, nine in 2016, 13 in 2017.

The majority of those overdoses were on heroin but not heroin purchased in this county. Brown County Sheriff Scott Southerland said local people who are addicted to it often will pool their money, drive to Indianapolis to get their daily fixes, and use most of what they score before they arrive in the county.

“It is happening, but it’s not something that where one of the larger cities would see where you have three or four people hanging out and they’re all out of their mind at the same time,” Nashville Police Chief Ben Seastrom said.

“On occasion, throughout the week you will come across some people that are using.”

Officers often talk with those people about getting help. It rarely works.

“Sometimes they hear us, but they’ve heard it a million times, so they’re not really in any hurry to get it done,” Seastrom said.

Prescription medications

It’s not just street drugs that are driving addiction.

Since 2014, eight people have overdosed on prescription medications in Brown County. Prescription drugs, mixed with other substances, were found in the bodies of three of the six fatal overdose victims in the past two years, according to coroner records.

In 2016, for every 100 people in our county, 40 prescriptions for pain medications were written, flooding households with pills like OxyContin and Vicodin — pills that breed addiction or can be stolen by addicted family members or thieves looking for a fix during a break-in.

That number is based on prescriptions filled at Brown County’s only pharmacy in Nashville, so it doesn’t count opioid prescriptions that local residents may have filled out of county.

Addiction is a nationwide issue. According to the CDC, nearly 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioid medications in 2014. And as many as 1 in 4 people who take prescription opioids long-term for pain not related to cancer struggle with addiction.

Every day, more than 1,000 people are treated in emergency rooms across the nation for incorrectly using prescription opioids.

Another concern is the spread of potent synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. The CDC issued an alert about the spread of the drug in 2015, citing it as the reason for significant increases in opioid deaths. In Brown County, half of the accidental overdose deaths in the past two years involved fentanyl, according to coroner records.

Getting clean

Sheriff Southerland estimates his department has used anti-overdose drug naloxone 15 to 20 times in the past two years to revive people who have OD’ed on opioids. All deputies carry the medication to save lives, he said — the overdose victims’ as well as officers’, as even coming into contact with a drug like fentanyl can be dangerous.

“I hear that a lot — not so much in law enforcement, but in the community — ‘Why save them? Let them go.’

“No,” Southerland said. “It’s still a life, and anytime we can save a life, we’re going to save that life. Some of these people recover, stop and get clean.”

But treatment is often out of reach.

In 2009, 23.5 million people needed treatment for a drug or alcohol abuse problem, but only 2.6 million — 11.2 percent — received it at a specialty facility, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

For families with insurance, rehabilitation sometimes is covered, but facilities are often out of state, and bills remain high even with insurance.

The Indiana House of Representatives approved a bill Jan. 30 to allow the Indiana Division of Mental Health and Addiction to receive grants for nine additional opioid treatment programs that are operated by a hospital and meet specified requirements. That measure now goes before the Indiana Senate.

Brown County Commissioners President Dave Anderson would like to see more treatment options available to local people.

“Some of the families, normal families, who are of modest means, they pay the light bill every month and the rent or house payment, but they can’t afford to be adding another $20,000 or $30,000 for a treatment facility for a grandchild,” he said.

“They don’t have the money. You can’t even borrow that much money.”

The CDC estimates that the total economic burden of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment and criminal justice.

‘Worse than I’ve ever seen it’

Before he was the sheriff in Brown County or a county commissioner, Anderson spent 25 years in the Indiana State Police narcotics division. He worked undercover buying cocaine and other drugs from dealers in Indianapolis.

“It’s worse than I’ve ever seen it,” he said.

Addiction knows no boundaries. “These are decent, good, solid families that I’ve known and socialized with and been friends with for 30 to 40 years,” Anderson said. “It’s just crazy.”

“People that I’ve known for many years are coming to me, asking me quietly, ‘Dave, my grandkids are caught up in the dope stuff. What can I do? How can I help them?’” he said.

“You do feel helpless. But if you can get that guy in a headlock and say, ‘You’re not going to do this again or I’m not going to let you go,’ just tighten down on it. … It’s going to get worse if we keep doing this.”

Communities are tasked with considering a range of options, but few have been implemented, while police and fire departments are being called to increasingly more overdoses.

Right now, the Brown County jail is the place where people suffering from addiction have the greatest access to help. Often, jail is the best place for them, Southerland said.

“The family will say, ‘He’s a good kid. He’s never been in trouble before. He says if we get them out, he’s going into rehab.’ It never happens. Never say never, but very rarely does somebody get bonded out of jail and go to rehab and it works,” he said.

“That has to be one of the hardest things a parent has ever had to do, to leave them jail.”

About 90 percent of inmates in the Brown County jail have been there before. Three of the top 10 reasons for book-in last year were directly related to drugs.

In August, the Brown County Sheriff’s Department started a therapy program for inmates that’s designed to decrease recidivism — the tendency of a person convicted of a crime to commit another crime. It involves lessons on assessing current relationships, reinforcing positive behavior and habits, and enhancing a person’s view of themselves.

The jail also offers the START program, which is run by a substance abuse counselor, and weekly Narcotics Anonymous/Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for male and female inmates. Some of those meetings are run by recovering drug users.

“Without a doubt, the best people to help somebody are former addicts,” Southerland said.

So the question is: What now? How does the community best help people get clean and prevent more addictions from starting in the first place?

For families struggling, local officials fretting, the economy suffering and the emergency workers rushing to help, that fix can’t come soon enough.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

The United States is in the midst of the worst drug epidemic in its history.

With alarming frequency, opioids, including prescription drugs, heroin and fentanyl, are killing Americans, including people in Brown County.

The Brown County Democrat is taking a yearlong look into a public health crisis that touches nearly every segment of our community and crosses all socioeconomic lines.

We will tell the harrowing stories of people who have been addicted and families who have lost loved ones.

We will talk to doctors, addiction specialists, law enforcement officers and others on the front lines of a problem that is ruining lives and putting mounting pressure on social service agencies, hospitals, the judicial system and the economy.

And beyond that, Addicted & Dying will explore solutions and a path forward — what treatments and approaches work, what communities can do and how to help people in need.

Our project starts this week by exploring two important issues that experts say are crucial in efforts to stem the tide.

One is the stigma surrounding addiction. The other is looking at addiction as a brain disease, not a moral failing.

Got an idea for our project? Contact us at newsroom@bcdemocrat.com.

Coming in March: Lisa Hobson took every drug she could get her hands on, said a prayer, then lay down to die. She awoke to police taking her into custody. She credits God and that arrest for saving her life seven years ago. She’s now found her purpose in saving others, alongside the people who did that for her.

IN THIS SERIES:

Addicted and Dying: An introduction

‘Addiction works when it gets to hide’

‘He wasn’t the addiction’

‘#DoSomething movement uniting the community

The science behind addiction

OPINION: In the midst of addiction, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’