INDIANAPOLIS — Now, one year later since the beginning of the pandemic and cases are finally going down in Indiana, as more people get vaccinated, WRTV is examining what Hoosiers are dealing with, as we try to climb out of COVID.
As we reflect on the past year and the effects of the pandemic, mental health needs to be discussed. It took a toll on many people, whether they lost jobs, income or were impacted in any way by the coronavirus.
It caused so much damage that we saw a 50% increase in overdoses last year alone in Indiana and a 32% increase in overdose deaths.
“Last thing he said was, ‘I’ll be back later,’” Mark Harrison said. “And later never came.”
Last month, Harrison lost his 23-year-old son Zackery to a drug overdose.
“It sucks as a parent because you feel like, I failed,” he said. “I couldn’t save him. I couldn’t protect him.”
Harrison said his son suffered a traumatic event when he was a child and he struggled ever since.
“I think they prescribed him Adderall, then Xanax and it didn’t take him very long to find out that Xanax numbs the pain,” Harrison said.
There, Zachery’s substance abuse began.
“He would get in so much pain as the years gone on, the tolerance, he had to find something stronger,” his father said.
The pandemic, Harrison said, only exacerbated his son’s anxiety and feeling of isolation. Connections and community — all key ingredients to recovery — were halted over the lockdown, including in-person recovery meetings.
“The worst place for a person with a disease of addiction is to be in their own head,” Harrison said.
And sadly, that was a place many went to over 2020.
“It’s been brutal for people who have this disease and my cousin is just one person,” Matt Gonzales said, who also lost his cousin to an overdose during the pandemic.
“He was 29 years old when he died,” Gonzales said. His cousin Taylor died in May.
“You may have a stereotypical image in your mind of what an addict is and he wasn’t that,” Gonzales said. “He was healthy, he was vibrant, he was incredibly social and outgoing.”
Gonzales said Taylor struggled with substance use disorder since he was a teenager, but was doing well in recent years.
He worked out every day, had a great job at a restaurant downtown.
But when the pandemic hit, he lost his job and his mental and physical outlet of going to the gym every day.
“He kind of built this really systematized life that helped him stay safe,” Gonzales said. “And the pandemic for him and for so many other people just ripped that away.”
What manifested, Gonzales feels, was an epidemic of overdoses, within a pandemic, seeing a 36% increase in overdose deaths over last summer alone.
“People with substance use disorder just got, they’re collateral damage,” Gonzales said.
“We forgot about the opioid crisis because of the pandemic,” Justin Phillips said. “We quit talking about it.”
“In early May, we began to really see indicators that overdoses were going up, our naloxone administrations were beginning to increase, as well, and we knew if we didn’t intervene at that point we were going to have a much bigger problem,” said Douglas Huntsinger, Indiana drug prevention, treatment and enforcement executive director.
Huntsinger said emergency medical services administered naloxone, the overdose reversal drug, 67% more last year.
In May 2020, the state acted quickly, providing an additional 25,000 doses of naloxone across Indiana.
Improving access to Naloxone: How a NaloxBox works
And most recently, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced they would partner with Overdose Lifeline, Inc., run by Justin Phillips, who lost her own son to an overdose, to supply all 92 counties with what’s called a NaloxBox.
These boxes make naloxone available to anyone 24 hours a day without having to interact with someone.
“Think of the concept of an AED box that we see often in public spaces,” Phillips said. “It’s a similar concept.”
Naloxone is already available at county health departments. Local nonprofits might also carry and distribute it. But Huntsinger said this NaloxBox is a new way to eliminate a critical barrier that’s preventing people from getting help.
“Have access to it without having to speak to a person,” Huntsinger said. “We know that stigma is a big problem.”
Each kit in the NaloxBoxes includes the following:
- 1 dose of naloxone
- Instructions on how to use it
- Referrals to treatment centers
They used an Indiana State Department of Health heat map to determine where overdoses are happening and naloxone is being used to place the NaloxBoxes in neutral places that wouldn’t feel intimidating, Phillips said.
“City parks, homeless shelters, very neutral places,” Phillips said.
Beginning to place them already across the state, Phillips said, “one county with a box in a two-week period, 60 doses were taken out of the box. Another one had 90 doses in about the same two-week period.”
After a year of such loss in our state, she said, “it makes me sad for sure that we still are losing these many lives when I believe that we don’t need to.”
Phillips said this is a key first step in reducing fatal overdoses and saving lives.
“All of these kids have an amazing heart. They really do,” Harrison said. “They don’t wake up every morning saying I’m going to break my mother’s heart by not coming home.”
Finding a NaloxBox
As of now, there are about 60 NaloxBoxes placed across the state. Phillips said those 60 boxes have been used hundreds of times, so potentially hundreds of lives have been saved so far this year.
To the south, in Orange County, a recovery center there has distributed more naloxone out of their NaloxBox in a three-day period than they were able to in three years.
The goal is to have at least two boxes in all 92 counties. The larger counties with a higher population like Marion, Lake, Vanderburgh and Allen will have more than two.
Getting the word out on these NaloxBoxes is still a work in progress. Phillips said some counties are so small, coordination is limited to figure out who will monitor the boxes in each county.
Businesses or community entities are able to request to have a NaloxBox installed in a highly visible area. Those requesting the box will be responsible for monitoring the box daily and requesting refills.
To request a box, contact Phillips, the founder and executive director of Overdose Lifeline, Inc. at email@example.com.
You can view the map below to find a NaloxBox near you.
If you or someone you know is dealing with a substance use related emergency, call 911.
For more information on a recovery organization near you, you can visit the Indiana Recovery Network website.
You can call 211 for help 24/7 in Indiana.
You can call the Indiana Addiction Hotline at 1-800-622-HELP (4357).
To find where you can get Naloxone near you, click here.
To view more resources from NextLevel Recovery Indiana, click here to visit its website.
Click here to learn more about substance use disorders.
Substance use disorder related data from the state.