ANDERSON — When Grace House, a halfway home for women recovering from addiction, opened here last year, Karl Lazar and Molly Douglas expected they would have two facilities open by now.

Things haven't gone quite as planned, though.

With the opening of a men’s house in the 400 block of East 15th Street two weeks ago, Lazar and Douglas are far ahead of schedule. 

They now run four homes and are renovating two more. By the end of the year, they expect to have beds for 56 men and women.

Their rapid expansion is a testament to both the acute need for supportive group housing programs for people undergoing addiction treatment, and the connections they've made through the Madison County Mental Health and Addictions coalition.

"Once we got up here and started getting everything together,” says Lazar who moved here from Florida in 2018, “it was apparent that the community was on board with trying to fix the community.”

“You see in the coalition meetings all these organizations working together that come from different groups,” Lazar adds.

“Some are from medical institutions, some are from the Anderson Impact Center, the Children's Bureau, the Madison County Health Department and other treatment groups. To see everybody aligning to make positive change in the community is huge.”

Developing working collaborations among organizations already operating mental health and addiction programs is a monumental challenge, says Sheriff Scott Mellinger, an active member of the coalition.

"I give a lot of credit to the 30 to 40 organizations that come to our meetings every month because they don't have to," he says. "We all take a little bit of time from our regular jobs to do this."

Sometimes he’s been frustrated, Mellinger admits, because the jail by default has become the county's largest mental health care provider, and that's true across Indiana and the nation.

"Where do people with mental health problems end up? Sleeping on the floor of the cell block," he says. That's also true among addicts, where people frequently commit crimes to raise enough money to buy drugs and feed their addiction.

"The mental health situation here, and especially the opioid addiction issue, is so huge,” he says. “That didn’t happen overnight and it takes time to get everyone to the table."

While the ratio of patients to mental health providers has improved in recent years, Madison County still lags far behind the state average, according to the 2019 Indiana Kids Count Data Book published recently by the Indiana Youth Institute.

The institute's data shows there was one provider to 870 patients in 2017, down from one for 1,115 in 2014. The state average, however, is 700 patients to one provider.

That number should improve now that Meridian Health Services has acquired the Madison County Community Health Center.

Meridian plans to expand psychiatric services for children and adults, establish a case management system to help people with non-medical needs in schools and at home, and implement a specialized program for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities and mental health needs called Connxxions, said Beth Clark, vice president of marketing.

"There is urgency here because people are dying every day, or their lives are drastically changing every day because of mental health issues or drug addiction," she says.

Some positive signs exist that the opioid epidemic gripping the nation and Madison County is abating.

Deaths from drug poisoning involving any opioid in the county increased at an alarming pace from 2014 to 2017, according to the Youth Institute Kids Count report.

In 2017 there were 32 such deaths compared to 18 in 2014, a number that ranked the county ninth in the state in opioid deaths.

These and other other indicators of drug involvement have convinced Mellinger that a free-standing drug detox unit is necessary. He's had some preliminary discussions with authorities in Hamilton County about such a facility, but no concrete plans currently exist. 

Many organizations in the county treat mental health and drug addiction, Mellinger says, but it was the realization that the problems were getting worse despite program expansions that led to the genesis of the coalition.

"The challenge was getting comparable (organizations) to drop their silos and come together," he adds. "It took us a long time to figure out where we all fit in."

"I would echo Scott," says Karen Finnigan, a health educator with the Madison County Health Department. "I believe we're on a good path ... We get more and more participants every month."

Last year, Finnigan says, the health department received a grant for a program called Mental Health First Aid and trained 120 first responders about how to recognize signs of mental health difficulties. More police and firefighters are expected to participate in the program this year.

Community Hospital Anderson will begin providing more support for overdose patients, says Ken Osborn, clinical manager of Community's Emergency Department.

"When they are discharged, these patients will receive a dose of Narcan and if the the patient is willing, they will be paired with a certified peer recovery coach who will help them with a lot of basic needs and resources," Osborn says.

Narcan is the brand name for Naloxone, a medication used to block the effects of opioids, especially in an overdose.

Stephenie Grimes, administrator of the health department, says the program has developed quickly after the department received grant funding from the Indiana State Department of Health.

While the program is starting with Community, the goal is for St. Vincent Anderson Regional Hospital and the jail to participate in the program as well.

"Once I pitched the idea, it moved faster than I thought it would," says Grimes.

And one of the reasons it did, she adds, is because all the organizations necessary to implement the program are members of the coalition.

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