Editor’s note: This is the second of a 2-part series. In it, we talk to and listen to several officials in our community who are looking for answers to the drug and opioid epidemic. They talk about what’s being done but also what more can be done. If you know someone, or you are struggling with addiction, please find help.
When four people died from overdoses and 21 more people overdosed in January, a range of Henderson officials knew that something more must be done to prevent the unnecessary deaths.
They got to work.
In the next months, officials held press conferences, visited schools, made social media posts, and publicized Narcan giveaways, among other initiatives.
They were looking for any and every way to educate and spread awareness about a national epidemic that some still think has skipped over Henderson County.
Nationwide in 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services declared that the opioid crisis was a public health emergency. Opioid deaths in the country have increased every year since. In 2020, there were more than 90,000 nationwide; in 2021, more than 106,000.
Closer to home, a graphic on the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a map of the United States measuring Drug Overdose Mortality by state, which in the earliest year of the graphic, 1999, lists Kentucky ranked 29th in the nation with 4.1 overdose deaths per 100,000 people and 197 total overdose deaths.
Twenty-two years later, 2021, Kentucky was ranked 4th with 55.6 overdose deaths per 100,000 people and 2,381 total overdose deaths.
It’s not just happening someplace else in the state; it’s happening here in Henderson County.
After January and after the push to publicize the life-or-death risks of opioids and fentanyl, overdoses dropped: five in February, five in March, three in April, five in May, five in June, one in July, three in August and six in September.
But, despite any progress local officials thought was occurring, overdoses and overdose deaths are still occurring.
So, what are we doing? What needs to be done?
Educate the county and be prepared
Angie Gatten, the community addiction awareness coordinator at the Recovery Resource Club of Henderson, is heading up the Stop The Overdose Project. Her goal: to get in front of as many local audiences as possible to teach the deadly dangers of fentanyl.
“I feel that (drug misuse) is the most significant issue that Henderson is facing other than mental health,” Gatten said, adding that mental health is the core of the drug abuse problem.
“There are a lot of people who manage their mental health issues with various substances,” she said.
Gatten believes that part of the reason people with mental health problems turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate is that a mistrust of mental health practitioners, who are often seen working hand-in-hand with police, prosecutors, even doctors.
“They have a mistrust of dealing with medical professionals,” Gatten said.
She also adds that family history, extremely quick societal changes and single parenting are further causes of substance abuse.
Parents need to have honest, hard conversations with children, setting expectations for them to not engage in drugs and alcohol, she said. At the same time, parents should let their children know that if they were to engage in that activity, they shouldn’t be afraid to come to them for help.
“Failed expectations does not mean that you’re not going to be there to help,” she said.
She also said it’s important for parents to be mindful of the example they’re setting. If your children witness your drug use or drinking, they are more likely to feel like it’s OK.
And like other organizations in Henderson, Gatten is encouraging everyone to carry Narcan with them or have it close by. You’ll never know when you’ll need to use it, she said.
“Narcan can save someone’s life,” she said.
Gatten provided statistics to the Hendersonian which show that overdoses and deaths occur everywhere in the city and county, across all ages and races.
Through September, there were 54 overdoses and 14 deaths from overdose. Approximately 60% of the overdoses were male; 40% female. Thirty-two overdoses and 11 deaths were male; 22 overdoses and three deaths were female. Thirty-five overdoses were white, eight were African-American and 11 were unknown.
In the age range 16 to 25 years old, there were eight overdoses; in the 26-35 range, there were 19; in those 36-45, there were 13; in the 46-55 range, there were six; and among those 56-65, there were six; and there was one of unknown age.
In the county, eight overdoses and two deaths occurred. In the north sector of Henderson, there were 16 overdoses and two deaths; in the south sector, there were eight overdoses and three deaths; in the east sector, there were 10 overdoses and two deaths; and in the west sector, there were 12 overdoses and five deaths.
She said a person’s neighborhood, which may seem to be immune to drug misuse, is irrelevant with the county’s current problem.
“We all need to change our mindset,” Gatten said. “It’s not just the area you’re living in but the entire county.”
After January, officials around the county came together and concluded that they must act. Part of the reason that overdoses decreased after that month is that a concerted effort to spread information about fentanyl occurred, Gatten said.
It offers a degree of optimism if education about drug abuse and addiction is spread through the county, Gatten said.
“These numbers show me there is hope,” she said.
Instead of looking from the outside and complaining about the problem, people need to get involved.
“What can I do to be a part of the solution?” she said residents should ask themselves.
Embrace new programs, partnerships
A lightbulb went off in Henderson Police Department Chief Sean McKinney’s head, he said, during January’s rash of overdoses and overdose deaths. This was not just a police problem.
He made three calls to ask for cooperation—one to the Henderson County School system so that administrators and teachers could properly educate students about the higher-than-ever risks of illicit drugs currently on the market—with the deadly fentanyl the most dangerous; a second went to the WARM center to let administrators there understand the scope of the problem; and a third to the sheriff’s office looking for a way to work together.
McKinney said that sort of cooperation is different from the past, when departments held the mindset that everything should be handled internally.
It’s a change from the way that policing—and the policing of narcotics in particular—used to be. Henderson County Sheriff Chip Stauffer said departments used to believe that they could “enforce our way out of the problem.” But now–“We know with narcotics we’re not going to be able to.”
Police are looking at other new methods. One is giving away Narcan. After the fentanyl overdoses and deaths in January, the police department began giving away Narcan, a policy that HPD took some heat for, McKinney said. At the time, HPD was the only department in the state that had begun Narcan giveaways. Critics charged it was a measure that gave approval to opioid use.
But McKinney said it’s a lifesaving technique.
In an opioid overdose, a user may quit breathing. Brain damage can occur after four minutes of not breathing. Death can occur 4-6 minutes later. Using Narcan can restore breathing to a person overdosing, thus allowing enough time for emergency personnel to arrive and save a life.
Another new way of looking at the problem, the Angel Initiative, allows a person with an addiction to walk into a police department and ask for help in finding treatment—no questions asked. The person won’t get arrested. It was started by the Kentucky State Police in 2016.
There’s also the Good Samaritan Law, which allows for someone using drugs with a person who is overdosing to call 911 without the fear of getting arrested. People were allowing individuals to die because they were afraid of getting arrested, Stauffer said.
Crisis intervention teams are also prevalent now in police departments. They serve to help officers respond to those suffering from mental health issues, but also those who may also be dealing with addiction at the same time. These techniques help officers recognize signs and symptoms of mental health issues and de-escalate conflicts that may arise.
The piece that holds all these initiatives together, though, is partnerships. Both the top officials in law enforcement in the county say that will be the key going forward with this epidemic. It breaks with police tradition, McKinney said. But, at this point, police need the resources and expertise that other organizations can provide.
“Now we’re much more open to working with people in the community,” he said.
Build resilient young people
Henderson County Attorney Steve Gold said a way forward involves developing a continuum of care for children. He, like Commonwealth’s Attorney Herbie McKee, believes afterschool programs are essential in this. Both prosecutors are founding board members of the Boys and Girls Club.
Though many afterschool programs are available in Henderson, Gold said there’s still not enough space for every kid in the community.
Both McKee and Gold believe the time right after school until parents arrive home from work—that 3 to 6 p.m. window—is critical.
Both say that the majority of teenage and pre-teen delinquent activity occur in that window.
Ensuring that children have positive role models and that they have something to do after school is key in getting to them before they may start experimenting with drugs or alcohol, Gold said.
There are several spots children and teenagers can go after school, among them Audubon Kids Zone, the YMCA, CATS and now the Boys and Girls Club, which opened its new location to students on Oct. 23. There’s also The Port, a recently opened program in the old Gleaner building on Klutey Park Plaza that aims to help 16-25 year-olds.
“If we can make space and opportunity for our youth to get connected with positive role models and parents can work and have purpose, then I think we can turn the tide on some of these issues,” McKee said.
All of this is to prevent bad choices in the future. But there’s still the current problem.
“There’s a short-term solution and a long-term solution,” Gold said. “We’ve got to work on it from both ends.”
McKee said of the 582 indictments in Henderson County last year, 436 were drug-related. That’s about 75%. Gold said that 2/3 of the cases his office deals with have some connection to drugs.
McKee is a proponent of Drug Court, which instead of sending offenders to jail where they’ll receive no drug rehabilitation, requires them to go through a treatment program.
The number of those choosing Drug Court has tripled since summer of 2022, McKee said. Those offenders get large sentences but have the option to attend in-patient treatment that can result in less time once the rehabilitation is completed. Drug Court is not an option for drug traffickers, those who’ve seriously hurt others or those convicted of sex crimes.
“I feel like it’s more beneficial to spend months in rehabilitation than spending it in jail,” McKee said, adding that those who only go to jail come out without any tools to stay clean.
McKee believes the community as a whole needs to take a hard look at what is occurring here.
“Until we’re able to have honest discussions, our community will not move forward,” he said.
In addition to more rehabilitation instead of incarceration, another must-have, according to Gold, is an increase in the number of mental health treatment providers in Henderson.
“We absolutely have to expand that,” he said, adding when compared to larger cities Henderson is far behind.
Provide a diversity of treatment options
Jennifer Harwood, who has worked 33 years as a mental health and addiction counselor, says both her therapy and opinions about addiction have evolved over the years. She now believes addiction is a response to past trauma, including the big, life-changing events that are most thought-of when the word is mentioned, like going to war or physical and sexual abuse as a child. But trauma also includes smaller, less noticeable events, like bullying at school. She says that most people, if not all, experience some sort of trauma in their lives.
Harwood said she believes a diversification of recovery models is needed. In the past, people had a mindset that they’d check into rehab for 28 days and then everything would be fine. That model works for some, she said, but not many.
Some do better with outpatient counseling. Some need to work the 12-steps, a model she said—again—works for many, but “it’s just not the only thing.”
Treatment needs include looking at addiction from all angles—social, environmental, physiological and psychological. A counselor must look at what’s keeping a person’s addiction going, which sometimes might be something they can’t get away from, like family members who are addicts. That can be hard to do—to leave family, she said.
In the end, she said counselors need to understand each individual they see which means finding the best treatment for each person, which will vary.
Harwood said there’s no other disease that entails as much denial, justification or alibis as addictions.
“There’s such denial that goes into this,” Harwood said, adding that even when the addiction gets destructive and everyone is telling the addict to seek help, still a common response is, “I’m fine.”
“If they don’t see it, they’re not going to be willing to do what’s necessary to get sober,” Harwood said. “It takes a lot of work to get clean and sober. When the pain’s bad enough, that’s when things change. But they (those addicted) decide when it’s time.”
And she said that time is different for every addict.
But, she said, if addicts are willing to do the work to get clean and sober, they will make it. But they must be willing and do the work, she said.
Despite the amount of drugs in the country, Harwood believes things are changing for the better. We’re reaching a tipping point in the crisis, and people, even those who don’t normally feel directly affected, are feeling it.
And Harwood believes kids and teens, those often on the front lines, see and understand a lot more than past generations about drugs’ negative consequences, partly because of social media’s reach.
“More people are noticing now that something’s not quite right,” she said.
There are several counseling and treatment centers in town, including the WARM center, which serves women. The MARC center in Bowling Green serves men. To learn more or get connected with treatment, call the Recovery Resource Club of Henderson at 270-212-0116.