Opening access to drug treatment

Shelley Elswick’s son Alex first started experimenting with drugs as a teenager growing up in Lexington. Finding the right, affordable treatment for Alex was a years-long struggle that added to the already difficult process of helping her child reach sobriety.

With more than 100 drug-related deaths per year, Lexington has one of the highest overdose rates in Kentucky. To tackle these stats, and provide easy access to substance use disorder resources, Elswick and Amy Baker, the program coordinator for the City of Lexington’s Substance Abuse and Violence Intervention (SAVI) Program, started GetHelpLex. The site, built by Code for America Brigade OpenLexinton, is a digital directory of available services to help people seeking recovery and their families quickly find the help that’s right for them.

Finding help when you "can't stop"

Alex started to use drugs as a teenager.

“All the classic signs of drug use were there–I found a syringe in the basement,” said Shelley Elswick. “It seems crazy that an intelligent person couldn’t put it together that something was happening but it all comes in slowly as your heart can accept it.”

One weekend, Alex came home from college and told Elswick he had a problem. “He said, ‘I’m taking pills on the weekend and I can’t stop.”

Alex moved home shortly after that. Elswick and her family tried to find him the help he needed. Finding the right care, however, was difficult.

“When you finally accept that someone you love has a problem and when they are finally ready to seek treatment, you aren’t necessarily experiencing that moment in a vacuum,” said Elswick. “For me, my dad was dying at that same time. My brain was frozen, I couldn’t think.”

The family ended up choosing an out-of-state facility for Alex’s inpatient care because it was the only place they could find that matched his needs and their financial resources. When he came home to begin outpatient, however, there was a three day delay in finding him care. Alex relapsed in that time.

“With the limited resources we had, we didn’t have many options. We would have benefited from having more choices,” said Elswick.

A better way

For Elswick, finding  the right services and treatment for her son was a years-long struggle that added to an already difficult process of helping her child reach sobriety. This experience got Elswick interested in helping other families like hers so that they would not have to endure similar challenges. And so, Voices of Hope-Lexington was born.

That is how she met Amy Baker.

Baker hadn’t been working in Lexington city government very long when the city decided to create a new substance abuse initiative. Baker, who spent many years at the Department of Corrections helping people connect with substance abuse trainings and treatment, saw the potential impact the initiative could have on people’s lives. She was quickly tapped to work on Lexington’s Substance Abuse and Violence Intervention (SAVI) Program.

“I was thrilled Lexington was going to take a proactive approach to substance abuse,” Baker said. “Our goals were to reduce substance abuse, reduce stigma, and increase access to treatment.”

To achieve these goals, one of the initiative's top priorities was to create a digital directory of substance abuse treatment options and information. To achieve this goal, Baker teamed up with Erik Schwartz, a technologist who had recently been hired at the city after spending a year as a Code for America fellow. He told her that OpenLexington, the city’s Code for America Brigade chapter.

They reached out to OpenLexington and went to the group’s next meeting. They brought Elswick and Amanda Fallin, Vice President of Voices of Hope, along with them.

<p>A billboard advertising GetHelpLex.</p>

A billboard advertising GetHelpLex.

Write Code, Solve Problems

The night of the meeting, a storm had rolled into Lexington that was so severe it had caused the electricity to go out where the meeting was being held. Baker, Elswick, and Schwartz decided to go anyway in case the OpenLexington members had shown up.

“When we got there, the group was sitting around the table with their laptops open, using their cell phones as lights,” said Baker. “I was completely overwhelmed by what they wanted to do for us, and it’s been that way every since.”

OpenLexington suggested focusing on the needs of treatment seekers and working backwards.

"We all agreed to focus on the needs of treatment seekers and work backwards. There are so many similar projects with great intentions that fail because they are too hard to use. We knew that testing with real users as we went along would mean a more functional site for people in need," says Schwartz, Digital Services Specialist with the City of Lexington and former Code for America Fellow.

The group recruited and interviewed many treatment seekers and listened to their primary frustrations: the information they found was out of date, confusing, and the websites were hard to navigate. At that point OpenLexington set out to create a quick prototype to address those issues.

After hearing from Baker and Fallin about the needs of the project, OpenLexington brought in LexLadiesCode to help. Together, the groups decided to prototype a first version of a digital directory using Code for Boston’s Finda project, which made it easy to see all of the substance abuse services in Lexington and across Kentucky on an online map.

“Starting with Finda was great,” said Open Lexington’s leader Chase Southard. “But we knew for the service to be useful to families and addicts, we needed to provide more filtered and targeted results.”

Addressing user needs

Through meetings with people seeking resources and those in recovery and their families, Southard and the team learned that when someone is ready to seek treatment, there is little time to waste.  To address this need, OpenLexington and LexLadiesCode built a questionnaire to help return more targeted results to people using the services. This helped people find services based on things like their ability to pay or level of service needed.

“For this to be useful, we needed to take a list of 100 results and whittle it down to three,” said Southard.

24/7 Help

After six months , the new directory called GetHelpLex was ready and open to serve around the clock.

The city is now working to get the word out.

“We have this fabulous locator but it doesn’t help anyone if they don’t know about it,” said Baker.

The city is planning to run an outreach campaign that includes advertising in local press, billboards, as well as through community groups and churches. OpenLexington and LexLadiesCode will continue making improvements to GetHelpLex based on feedback from users on how things could be easier to navigate and more efficient.

Baker couldn’t be more impressed with the support she got at OpenLexinton.

“It’s partnership that is going to help so many people,” said Baker. “I would encourage anybody in government with access to a Code for America chapter to explore what you could do together.”