Groups address increasing heroin threat in western suburbs
Health educator Rosanne Tenuta uses a display while talking at the Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale about how using heroin effects people. | Chuck Fieldman~Sun-Times Media
What to watch for
Jeanne Widing, student assistance program coordinator at Lyons Township High School, offers these tips for parents:
Behavior changes, including a new group of friends.
Watery eyes, runny nose and appearing sleepy.
Anxiety, depression and other mental health disorder put individuals more at risk for heroin use.
A disinterest in school activities, sports or job.
Monitor mileage on family vehicles.
Keep track of money and watch for missing valuables sold to support a habit.
Closely monitor prescription medications, particularly pain-killers serving as the gateway drug to heroin in 25 percent of cases.
Updated: June 18, 2012 8:33AM
If their own son hadn’t struggled with the death-grip of a heroin addiction, a local couple would scarcely believe seven members of their 21-year-old’s high school class have died from overdoses.
The couple shared the family’s three-year roller coaster ride in their son’s recovery on a WGN Radio broadcast in March, choosing to withhold personal details, because a younger son is still in high school.
After a third and lengthy stint in rehab, the LaGrange Park couple’s son is continuing his recovery and living independently in another state, his parents said.
Similar stories are being told in the Hinsdale South community.
“As for Hinsdale South, there are three former students in the last year (who) have passed away from suspected heroin use,” said Darien police officer Nick Skweres.
That, and increased prevalence of the drug throughout the suburbs, has prompted South officials to address the issue. Social worker Nancy Betker said the subject of making good choices, including the choice to not do drugs, will be brought up during physical education classes between now and the end of the school year.
“The focus is to give them a good, positive message before they go off to summer break,” she said.
When students return next fall, Betker said the school hopes to hold a forum to educate the community in an effort to prevent future problems.
“In Burr Ridge itself, we haven’t had a lot of incidents in the past three years,” said Burr Ridge Police Chief John Madden.
Looking back, he found seven incidents involving heroin in that time period, including a fatal overdose in 2010.
“None of the incidents involved a juvenile,” he said, noting several involved motorists passing through town.
“I am aware of the issue, and we’ve talked about it a lot,” Madden said. “Fortunately, we have not experienced a serious issue in Burr Ridge itself.”
Law enforcement officials seem to agree that heroin’s low price and availability are key to its rising popularity.
A DuPage County deputy coroner, who asked his name not be used, said Roosevelt Road is commonly referred to as “Heroin Highway” because people from the suburbs take the road into the city to obtain the drug.
“Heroin is the leading street drug,” he said. “A majority of our street-drug overdoses are heroin.”
John Donatelli, a La Grange parent, applauds the joint educational outreach efforts of the Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale, the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University and The Reed Hruby Foundation, based in Burr Ridge.
“My son graduated in 2008 from Lyons Township High School, and one of his best friends died from an overdose in January 2011,” Donatelli said. “The effect was terrible, absolutely tragic.”
“Robert Crown has got the right idea,” he said. “Education and prevention are the keys.”
The center is coordinating The Reed Hruby Heroin Prevention Project, made possible by a $340,000 gift from the Hruby family of Burr Ridge. A 10-month study included in-depth anonymous interviews with 15 current and former heroin users, ages 22- 31, from the western suburbs. The interviewees talked about how they began using heroin and what they knew about the drug when they first used it.
Responses from the heroin users indicate that most wrongly believed when they “snorted or sniffed” heroin they were less likely to become addicted.
Nearly two-thirds of the study respondents said they turned to heroin after first using prescription pain medications or as a way to “come down” from cocaine use.
Jeanne Widing, LT’s student assistance program coordinator, said unlike other drugs, heroin crosses the blood-brain barrier more quickly and floods the brain with dopamines that makes the user feel good, followed by withdrawal when the effect wears off.
“You use it a couple of times and the brain gets used to that pattern very quickly,” she said. “That’s something kids don’t realize.”
Dr. Herb Zerth, an doctor at Adventist Hinsdale Hospital, said users are seen almost daily in the emergency room.
“It’s a constant thing, though it seems to ebb and flow, possibly if different batches of heroin are strong or not,” he said. “It’s much more prevalent than people realize and it affects people from all walks of life, mostly 30 and younger.
“If you’re using long enough, you will overdose and die.”
Widing said LT officials haven’t noticed a surge in heroin use at the school.
“Some of the tragedy in some ways is students 19-21 years old. Once they’ve graduated from high school, there are so few resources, especially if they’re not hooked up with a college,” she said. “That’s a real gap in terms of social services and support.”
Nancy O’Brien of Western Springs, president of LT’s Parent Teacher Council, welcomes an effort to get information to parents after hearing a speaker from Robert Crown on heroin use among suburban youth.
“We are a very comfortable community, but I don’t think any of us are naïve enough to say there isn’t a problem and a problem that could become so much worse if not addressed,” O’Brien said. “The more information out there the better.”
Sandy Illian Bosch contributed to this story.