Pubdate: Fri, 06 Jan 2017
Source: Courier-Journal, The (Louisville, KY)
Copyright: 2017 The Courier-Journal
Author: Madeleine Winer


Growing up, Evan Blessett was as an avid soccer player and honor roll
student. He loved skateboarding and played the drums later in his teen

But one role that his dad, Doug, never thought his son would play was one
of a recovering drug addict.

"The thing that gets me is he got past us," Doug Blessett said about his
29-year-old son, who is a counselor at The Healing Place, an addiction
recovery center in Louisville. "When my son went through this, I took it
personally. You think you would see it, and I didn't."

Now, Doug, a Jeffersonville resident, is aiming to attract kids' attention
and educate them about the realities of heroin, opioids and the
prescription drug crisis at a younger age. And he plans to do that through
Drug Proof, his vision for a program that would connect middle school
students with stories from recovering addicts and others who have lost
their lives to heroin's grip.

"Their stories are horror stories," Doug Blessett said. "You're never
going to stop every child from getting addicted to drugs, but if we could
stop a few more of them, it's well worth it."

Their effort is among several grassroots initiatives in Indiana that seek
to spread awareness about the heroin and opioid epidemic. These groups are
looking to tackle the root of the problem while adding effective drug
abuse treatment, prevention and education in the area.

Evan Blessett started smoking marijuana when he was 13. By the time he was
a senior in high school, he had moved on to oxycodone and other opiates.
And a few years later, heroin.

"When I did heroin, it was the greatest feeling I ever felt," he said.
"But the day came, and I couldn't stop."

By his early 20s, his days consisted of waking up with the main goal of
getting high. When his parents found out, they gave him an ultimatum:
leave the house or go to treatment.

It would take Evan almost 10 rounds of treatment before he found a program
that addressed the root of his problem: his addiction.

"The issue is that addiction is a disease," said Evan, who has been sober
more nearly three years. "The argument is not about if addiction is a
disease. It's about how are we treating the problem."

And he believes treating the problem before kids start to experience peer
pressure and become introduced to illegal substances is key.

"The best form of prevention is education and starting to educate at a
younger age," he said. "The time will come when someone will offer you
drugs or alcohol, and middle schoolers need to know the stark realities of
drug addiction."

Doug Blessett wants to start a program in middle schools called DrugProof
to teach students about drug addiction because his son is a recovering
addict who is now counseling others at the Healing Place in Louisville.
(Photo: Brian Bohannon, Special to the CJ)

Doug Blessett's DrugProof program has proven to be ambitious. He'd like to
create a video with celebrities narrating the stories of local recovering
addicts -- like Evan -- or those that have died from the drug.

He wants to show the video in schools and hand out bracelets with the
names of people whose stories will be featured. But getting a program like
this in schools and finding big name talent have been his biggest hurdle.

"If a video comes on and there's someone there to look up to, that's going
to get them to pay attention," he said. "Fighting heroin is a grassroots
effort. If I had a way to get this out there, I feel like that would be
the way to let people in."

How bad is the problem?

Seeing too many young people on his preparation table led funeral director
Chuck Lewis and his partner, Kathy Copas, to form Floyd County Cares, a
volunteer advocacy group looking for solutions to the area's heroin and
opioid problem.

"I'm a lifelong New Albanian, and I don't want to see my community fall
into this situation," said Copas, who helped form the group earlier this
year. "We're trying to do everything we can to make a difference in
whatever way we can."

In Floyd County, there have been 19 overdose-related deaths this year,
said Dr. Tom Harris, the county's health officer. Baptist Health Floyd,
formerly Floyd Memorial Hospital, reported seeing almost double the drug
overdose cases it saw last year with a rise from 330 in 2015 to 571 drug
overdoses as of November.

"It's a problem. It's out there," Harris said. "We need a broad-spectrum
approach to the problem."

In Clark County, statistics show a more grim picture.

In 2015, Clark Memorial Hospital recorded 51 heroin overdoses. This year,
there had been more than triple that amount -- 162 -- as of the end of

And so far, 77 of those overdoses have resulted in death, according to
data from the Clark County Health Department.

"I don't know that I go through a shift where I don't see an overdose,"
said Dr. Brian Porter, medical director of the emergency department at
Clark Memorial Hospital.

Most heroin overdose patients are in their 20s and more than half refuse
treatment because "they're so far into the needle or into the bottle, they
don't see how far off they are," Porter said.

"It's unfortunate to see the years and decades of productive life lost
because of this epidemic."

The increase in heroin use has led to users sharing needles, which means
increased rates of HIV and Hepatitis C, said Dr. Kevin Burke, Clark
County's health commissioner. The county has one of the highest rates of
Hepatitis C, causing the state's health department to declare a public
emergency, clearing the way for a needle exchange in the county.

For every individual the county saves from getting an HIV infection, Burke
estimates the state saves $1 million.

Most residents in Clark County view this as a step in the right direction.

In Floyd, Copas said there's more work to do. Law enforcement officials in
the county are not equipped with Narcan, the heroin antidote. And Harris
said the county needs more beds open in inpatient recovery facilities.

"Everything comes down to funding and manpower," Harris said. "It's going
to take time to address all the issues."

Clark County Cares, which helped its Floyd County counterpart get started,
has strived to be part of the solution.

The group, formed in April 2015, started with people coming together to
share their stories of addiction, loss and struggle with the opioid
epidemic, said its organizer, Nancy Woodworth-Hill, co-pastor at St.
Paul's Episcopal Church in Jeffersonville.

"It's not just a problem that is limited to the homeless," she said. "It's
a problem affecting a wide range of people."

Since then, the group has hosted its first drug facts programming and
gathered volunteers for the county's first needle exchange, slated to
start Jan. 26. The group is in the process of planning its second Drug
Fact week in January, which will feature local addiction experts.

And Copas said Floyd County has a full agenda of goals for 2017. But local
leaders are still concerned it's not enough.

Indiana has been among the states with the lowest amount of money
dedicated to public health for the last two years, according to reports
from America's Health Rankings, which assesses the nation's health on a
state-by-state basis.

State budget numbers show thousands of dollars go to community health
centers, HIV/AIDS services and education centers per year. And state
statute mandates that each county in Indiana dedicate a certain percent of
funds toward mental health and drug abuse services.

But directing those resources to find a tangible solution to the heroin
and prescription pill crisis has been difficult.

Evan Blessett talks about the progression of his drug use with his father,
Doug, who wants to start a program in middle schools to teach students
about drug addiction. (Photo: Brian Bohannon, Special to the CJ)

Outgoing Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, a New Albany native, has
encouraged the state to take a bolder approach to addressing the heroin
and opioid crisis.

Ideas he supports include a statewide needle exchange and equipping all
law enforcement officers with Narcan.

"They need to be bold," he said of legislators' actions regarding the
issue. "This is a crisis, and we ought to treat it like it."

In Jeffersonville, Evan Blessett said he had no idea what was at the root
of his addiction, but the Healing Place helped him understand it went
beyond opiates, Opana and oxycodone.

"Everyone tells you to stop. And you can't stop. Now you feel like this
weak, awful person," he said. "No one ever stopped me and said, 'Look, you
have an illness. You have a problem. You have to treat that. When I
started treating the causes and conditions, I started to see change."
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