Roosevelt University drug policy expert and researcher Kathie Kane-Willis believes heroin use among suburban teens is becoming far too common.
“Heroin use is an increasing and alarming problem in the suburbs and for people in suburban communities,” Kane-Willis told about 200 people attending a community forum on heroin in Downers Grove, Ill., on Tuesday, Oct. 18. “Heroin users don’t look like what you may think they look like. IIt could be the person sitting next to you or it could be someone’s child.”
Kane-Willis made the remarks as she unveiled findings of a new study, “Understanding Suburban Heroin Use,” which was released at the community forum by Roosevelt University and the Robert Crown Center for Health Education’s Reed Hruby Heroin Prevention Project.
The groundbreaking study, which includes in-depth interviews with 15 current and former young heroin users from Chicago’s western suburbs, found lack of understanding about heroin and its effects to be shockingly prevalent among first-time users.
Kane-Willis and Stephanie Schmitz, both of Roosevelt’s Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, looked at how young people in western Cook, DuPage and Will counties began using heroin, including their knowledge about the drug when they first began using. Family circumstances, mental health conditions and treatment histories were considered for the study, which includes anecdotal personal stories of users who were granted confidentiality in exchange for their candor.
Over 10 months, the two researchers conducted more than 50 candidate screenings, 15 in-depth interviews, focus groups with 28 young, suburban users who had been involved with drugs in high school and a survey with more than 100 parents.
They found that users came to use heroin in one of three ways:
• They used and were dependent on opiate pills, such as Oxycontin or Vicodin, trying heroin as a substitute.
• They used cocaine to an excess, trying heroin as a means to come down from a cocaine binge and fall asleep.
• They were poly drug users who came to try heroin after experimenting with many other drugs.
“We were most surprised by the lack of knowledge users had about heroin before they tried it,” said Schmitz, one of the co-authors of the report. “They didn’t understand when they tried heroin how easy it would be for them to become dependent, and what’s worse, they didn’t know how severe the withdrawal symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, insomnia and joint and bone pain, could be.”
Indeed, the report quotes many who had similar stories about their lack of knowledge about heroin and its effects. Among comments were these: “I didn’t know that people got sick from not doing it,” “I really thought I had the flu…I didn’t know what addicted meant,” “I thought it was like marijuana. I thought that the people who got addicted – that it was all in their head” and “If I knew about withdrawal, I would not have done it. If I knew, I would never have used.”
The study also found that the number of people in the United States who have tried heroin is growing rapidly, with initiations to heroin increasing 80 percent since 2002. National survey and treatment data show that as many as 34,000 American youths try heroin in any given year; admissions to treatment facilities among teens and young people in their 20s across the country increased more than 55 percent between 1996 and 2006. Meanwhile, hospital discharges related to heroin use among the young, ages 20 to 24, increased by more than 200 percent in the region’s collar counties between 1998 and 2007; and in the state of Illinois, nearly 70 percent of youth under the age of 18 who were admitted for public treatment were white.
“These young people didn’t know what they were getting into,” said Kane-Willis. “They didn’t understand when they tried heroin how easy it would be for them to become dependent, and they didn’t know how severe the withdrawal symptoms could be.”
During focus groups that were held last summer, respondents who were ages 18 to 24 and who had used at least one illicit drug in high school reported that their drug education had been incomplete and not comprehensive. Respondents said:
• Heroin-specific information was lacking in school programs.
• School programs “half-explained” heroin effects, if at all.
• Heroin was “lumped together” with other drugs, which prevented understanding of the distinct dangers of addiction and death that can accompany the drug’s use.
In addition, among the 105 suburban parents who were surveyed for the study, nearly 50 percent said they did not know where to go to get accurate drug knowledge, did not know how to start conversations about drug use, and needed more information on drug use and trends.
“This research confirms our theory that successful heroin prevention and education efforts must be comprehensive and acknowledge the pain or dysfunction young people are trying to escape through drug use,” said Kathleen M. Burke, CEO of the RCC.
“The message here is that educators, parents and other influencers must paint an accurate and authentic picture of the risks and harm associated with heroin in order to reach youth. Families need more information to create open lines of communication, so that young people have a safe place to talk about their problems and pain without turning to heroin,” she said.
The report’s findings will inform a comprehensive community education and prevention effort developed through RCC’S Reed Hruby Heroin Prevention Project. The project began when the Hruby family of Burr Ridge, Ill., made a large donation to RCC in memory of its grandson, Reed, who died of a heroin overdose in 2008. The next phase of the project is an educational response design and piloting before a program is officially launched in 2013.
Findings of the Roosevelt University study can be viewed at:
For more information about RCC, visit www.robertcrown.org.
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