KOKOMO, Ind. —The Howard County Health Department will involve more community partners in the fight to save lives from opioid overdose, using recommendations from Indiana University Kokomo students. And soon, their ideas may be implemented statewide.
While completing a semester-long research project, Angela Coppola’s health program planning students learned that if people receive a free overdose rescue kit at Kokomo Urban Outreach, the Kokomo Rescue Mission dining hall, libraries, churches, bowling alleys, union halls, bars or other places where they feel they won’t be judged, they are more likely to ask for one.
Giving away the kits without judgment is key to saving lives, said student Kirstyn Summers, noting that many opioid users become addicted from a legal prescription painkiller and often don’t match the stereotype of a drug abuser.
“The opioid crisis doesn’t affect just one class of people,” she said. “It affects everyone’s lives.”
The health department uses grant funding to give away the kits — each contains a single dose of the nasal spray Narcan, which can be used to save someone who has overdosed — and to train people to use them.
At the request of Jennie Cauthern, public health project coordinator, Summers and eight other students interviewed representatives from the Kokomo Rescue Mission, Coordinated Assistance Ministries, The Gilead House, Jackson Street Commons, Howard County Adult Probation, and others who distribute the kits, or who are certified to administer them. Cauthern’s goal was to learn how she can best reach people who need the kits.
The students, led by Coppola, assistant professor of health sciences, presented their findings to Cauthern B.A. ’11, M.P.H. ’16, as well as representatives from the Howard County Purdue Extension Office and Overdose Lifeline Inc.
Cauthern thanked the class for their work, stating she will use the data they gathered as she applies for grants to continue funding the overdose rescue kits program. She recently presented the students’ findings to the Indiana State Department of Health as part of a report on naloxone distribution successes and challenges, and said officials there requested a copy to share with other counties, as they apply for grants.
“Having representatives of these local agencies say that certain avenues would be better suited for outreach, that’s the data piece I was missing,” she said. “The information about stigma, and reaching out to local churches, is something I haven’t done yet, but shows me where I can direct my efforts in the future. They collected a lot of useful information.”
It’s important work, said Coppola, as the U.S. fights a growing opioid crisis. Approximately 100 Hoosiers die each month from drug overdoses, and in Howard County, 14 of 51 accidental deaths in the first three months of 2017 were caused by drug overdose.
Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie recently announced the university will devote $50 million over the next five years, and more than 70 researchers to the problem, as part of its Grand Challenges Program, to mark IU’s bicentennial in 2020.
In addition to having judgment-free places to request a kit, the health department also needs to produce educational public service announcements, brochures, or flyers, the students said, to help people understand why they are important. They noted that IU Kokomo classes may be able to produce those resources.
“Stigma is a big issue,” said senior Raynee Elmore, noting that people who use opioids, or their family members, may be afraid to go to the health department because of police presence, and ashamed to ask for a kit.
“They might not seek one out for fear of being judged,” she said. “They’re afraid everyone will know, or that their face has been out in the community [in the media] for the wrong reason.”
As a health management professional, Cauthern is happy to have participated in a project that benefitted not only her agency, but the students preparing to enter her profession.
“They are seeing what people working in health are doing, and what they could do as a job in this field,” she said. “The fact they did these interviews, analyzed the data they gathered, and wrote up a report will be so beneficial to me, but it also gave them real-life experience working in the field.”
Additional students participating in the project included Lisbeth Alanis-Santos, Halle Amann, Lindsay Blackford, Ashanti Clark, Stephanie Kenyon, Emily Light, and Angelica Santana.
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.