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Forum looks at ways to break heroin’s grip on local residents

Nov 7, 2013
In The News

The numbers are grim: 71 overdose deaths in DuPage and Will counties so far this year. Last year, Kane County tallied 27 heroin fatalities. Fifty percent of all addicts are doomed to die from their dependency.

Still, there is reason for hope.

Some of those who are tuned in most closely to the problem of heroin use in the Aurora and Naperville areas say education is one crucial key to battling the scourge that continues to exact a high local toll, particularly among young people. Collaboration and money also are needed, they say, to counter the drug’s startling resurgence and the heartbreak it leaves behind.

“It’s clear that we are facing an epidemic of heroin use,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, D-Naperville, who hosted a panel discussion Wednesday designed to provide an overview of where the fight stands now, and what needs to be done to ensure its success.

There is progress being made. Six speakers joined Foster at Community Christian Church in Naperville to share details about their work on the problem and talk about additional ways to combat the deadly drug.

Foster said one current challenge is the significant cuts made by the federal sequestration earlier this year that reduced by $210 million the budget for the addictions division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and took $120 million from the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Shawn Williams, pastor at Community Church, said the issue exhibits a very broad reach and will require a broad-based solution involving law enforcement, business people, schools and faith organizations, in addition to citizens.

“We’re losing far too many young people to this particular issue,” said Williams, who commended the efforts such as the newly formed heroin fighting group ParentsMatterToo. “It will take an entire community to respond the right way.”

Early lesson

Several of the speakers agreed that the sooner kids can learn about heroin and why they must steer clear of it, the better.

Joan Olson, communications director at the Robert Crown Centers for Health Education in Hinsdale, related some of the interactive education programs the center has launched to encourage kids to equip themselves with the knowledge needed to stay away from dangerous drugs.

“Our goal is to stop kids from using before they even get started,” said Olson.

There was a time, she said, when even the topic was taboo.

“It wasn’t so long ago, actually.”

When they talked to school students, Olson and her coworkers soon learned that when the kids went through drug abuse prevention programs in the lower grades, there was little information provided about heroin specifically. Many had just lumped the drug into the long list of substances they’d been told to avoid.

“They didn’t have an understanding of the quick addiction and the ease of death, how you could die from heroin,” Olson said.

Their parents may have a better grasp of that critical risk, but many of them still don’t want to talk about it.

Fueling a stigma

Jeffery Farson, director of student services at Naperville North High School, said the school has launched awareness-building programs for students and retrained staff members to help them know how to tell when kids are having trouble, partly as a way to counteract the stigma that continues to hinder efforts to address the problem.

“The biggest problem is not acknowledging and ignoring,” he said.

North also has added a dean of interventions, Farson said, who is working exclusively with kids who have been hospitalized or are undergoing treatment.

“We love our kids more than you know,” he said. “So we are really, really trying to learn everything that’s out there.”

Carrie Thomas, a coordinator in Kane County drug rehabilitation court, echoed Farson’s observation about the persistent reluctance to discuss the issue, and how that can keep addicts from turning to their families for help before their dependency escalates.

“There’s such a stigma. I can’t say that enough,” Thomas said. “They don’t want to tell their parents, who may be prominent in the community, ‘I have a problem with heroin.’”

Making things worse, she said, funding and insurance benefit cuts have led to a rise in relapse, because hospital treatment stays are being cut too short to have lasting impact.

Vivitrol, an extended-release form of the recovery drug naltrexone, shows promise, Thomas and others said. But at more than $1,000 for each monthly injection, Vivitrol isn’t often an option for users whose families lack comprehensive insurance coverage.

“I see the end results of the kids who have grown up and not gotten that education,” Thomas said. “I see the destruction, the loss of families, the loss of everything.”

Depression disguised

Jim Scarpace, executive director of the Gateway Foundation in Aurora, said one in five Americans either has a genetic predisposition to addiction or is already struggling with it. Of those, 80 percent are suffering from depression or another form of behavioral disorder. Some discover heroin instantly makes them feel better.

“But then they spend the rest of their time chasing that high,” he said.

Over the past five years, Gateway has seen its treatment numbers double for opioid abuse. In many cases, the addicts started by treating their depression themselves, using prescription painkillers left in the family medicine cabinet.

Sometimes recovery requires inpatient treatment, Scarpace said, but not always.

“The reality is, treatment anywhere works, but it takes time,” he said.

Thomas said many of those who end up in drug court suffer from depression, but they don’t know it.

“Once they get sober, then mental (illness) rears its head,” she said.

Kimberly Groll, an alcohol and drug counselor at Care Clinics of Naperville who attended the discussion, said education efforts are worthwhile, but there needs to be more done to spotlight the signs of mental illness.

“The drugs go along with the mental illness,” said Groll, stressing the need for parents to know what to look for — if they can get past the stigma. “No parent wants to say, ‘I have a child with a mental illness.’”

Vicki Foley shared her highly personal experience with heroin’s deadly power. The St. Charles resident lost her 27-year-old son, Chris Foley, to a heroin overdose six years ago, after several desperate years of trying to intervene with treatment for his $400-a-day habit.

“My son was a heroin addict. It’s not what he wanted to be, but he couldn’t stop,” Foley said of the condition that compelled her son to steal from his family.

“Heroin took his life, and it left a big hole in ours.”