Community programs encourage culture of care as Indiana’s drug overdose deaths decline

By Erica Irish 

Executive Director for Drug Prevention, Treatment and Enforement Jim McClelland as he calls to order a meeting of the Indiana Commision to Combat Drug Abuse.
Photo by Andrew Longstreth



INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Commission to Combat Drug Abuse met Thursday to discuss how to combat drug abuse harming the state’s workforce, infants and public security.

Jim McClelland, the state’s executive director for drug prevention, treatment and enforcement, opened the commission meeting, which heard from representatives from a public and private groups implementing programs to treat and end rampant substance abuse in Indiana.

Healthcare providers, community stakeholders and lawmakers sit on the commission under McClelland, whose position was created in 2017 by Gov. Eric Holcomb on his first day in office to address the encroaching opioid epidemic.

In the years since, Holcomb and the Indiana General Assembly have integrated drug enforcement and rehabilitation initiatives.

The number of drug deaths in the state is decreasing, according to date provided by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency’s preliminary findings showed Indiana’s drug overdose deaths declined since a peak in November 2017. Data provided by the CDC, for example, show an 18 to 20 percent reduction in drug overdose deaths between January and June of 2018, when compared to rates collected in the same period in 2017.

The rate at which healthcare providers are prescribing opioids is also lower, though the 2017 rate (approximately 75 prescriptions per 100 patients) was still higher than the national average at the time (an estimated 60 prescriptions per 100 patients).

But addiction persists across the nation, and Indiana is no exception.

Members of the Community Health Network outlines results of their program to combat Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) which ocurs when a pregnant women abuses drugs or alcohol.
Photo by Andrew Longstreth

“The important message here, I think, is that we’re on a good path. We’re building some momentum,” McClelland said. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of meth use out there.”

Devon McDonald, executive director of the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute (ICJI), confirmed McClelland’s concern with findings collected by his organization last year. Among other developments, the ICJI found that alcohol remains the substance most commonly abused by Hoosiers, followed by prescription medications and methamphetamines.

“I know we’ve discussed this in the past, but we definitely need to stay focused on the other forms of substance abuse that are happening in the state,” McDonald said.   

While opioid abuse remains a focus for state spending, program leaders are not blind to other forms of addiction in need of attention, explained Rebecca Buhner, the deputy director of adult mental health and addiction at the Family and Social Services Administration’s (FSSA) Division of Mental Health and Addiction.

Part of that process, Buhner said, involves equipping individuals struggling with addictions of all kinds with universal resources like health insurance and transportation to treatment services.

Through the DMHA program Recovery Works, an entity that provides grants to certified services to mitigate substance abuse, Buhner said the state should look more closely at Indiana’s uninsured populations. She added that 65 percent of people calling the state’s 211 hotline, which can refer individuals to treatment services, do not have health insurance. This acts as a barrier to immediate aid.

Recovery Works also launched a partnership with Lyft, a ride-sharing service powered by a smartphone app, in March 2019 to provide transportation receiving aid from the program. Buhner said data reveal the majority of individuals benefiting from this partnership needed transportation to their specific treatment services, with another large percentage using the ride service to attend drug court and avoid additional punishments.

That’s an important development, Buhner said, because time in jail, even for a relatively short period, can derail a patient’s path to recovery.

“A lot of folks are just serving one day,” Buhner said. “That does impact their work, their environment, their family life, and everything else they are trying to build to gain stability.”

Data show that a third of Recovery Works clients were previously incarcerated and that 40 percent return to jail at some point in their recovery process, with more than half of that same group serving less than a week in prison.

A fear of the system and legal punishment also shadows other programs designed to combat drug abuse with medication assisted therapy and psychotherapy, as expressed by Anthony Sanders, an obstetrician and gynecologist (OBGYN) with Community East Hospital in Indianapolis.

Sanders, alongside a team of physicians, first responders and social workers, helped start a program at the hospital designed to target and assist pregnant women addicted to substances and to reduce neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), a disorder that can pose life-threatening results to infants.

A baby diagnosed with NAS, which occurs after a mother has exposed it to drug or alcohol abuse in the womb, can exhibit “a constellation of symptoms,” as explained by Community East Hospital OBGYN Indy Lane.

Sanders said the unpredictability of the disorder makes it even more important to treat early. But, he added, women facing addiction often delay or abstain from prenatal care and addiction services completely to avoid losing custody of their children.

“Our goal is not to get your kids taken away. Our goal is to help you recover,” Sanders said. “Not just for the 40 weeks you’ll be pregnant, but for a lifetime.”

The next step, Sanders and commission stakeholders agreed, is to continue to reverse the state’s culture of stigma to help the addicted receive treatment earlier.

 “There are a lot of good pieces out there, all over the place,” McClelland said. “This is what we have to do, and this is how we’re going to get lasting impact.”

Erica Irish is a reporter for, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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