Having spent years working to educate youngsters on healthy eating, human reproduction, puberty, tobacco, and alcohol and drug prevention, Kathleen Burke, of the Robert Crown Center for Health Education, told a crowd Sept. 27 at Lincoln-Way Central High School's Lee F. Rosenquist Auditorium that "the heroin epidemic has been a huge challenge."
New Lenox community members packed the auditorium for the Will County HELPS symposium about heroin. The program was organized and sponsored by the Village of New Lenox and the New Lenox Police Department.
The reasons for the spike in use of heroin, which is far more potent than it was in decades past, include the availability of drugs and social anxiety. At the same time, many of those who fall prey to heroin succumb because they are genetically predisposed to addictions; they have addictive personalities. Others are suffering from undetected depression or mental issues. These are not the only reasons, but studies show that a significant number of those addicted to heroin have one or more of these traits, she said.
In the meantime, social anxiety has claimed a mountain of victims. Some, while grappling with social anxiety, fall into the category of "risk takers," she said. "They have no fear," and heroin's trendy allure sucks them right in.
How do you keep kids off drugs, especially heroin?
First and foremost, kids need ongoing support and education about the harmful, devastating and often times deadly effects of drugs. Just telling them the sorry facts about the number of deaths and near-death experiences is ineffective for kids, she said.
These statistics "scare parents but not kids," she said.
What Burke and her cohorts have discovered is that kids respond better when the discussion pertains to their bodies. The scientific facts about heroin and what it does to the brain and whats happening to the system during withdrawal.
In the '70s, mandatory health courses offered segments on the dangers of drugs. And while it was still popular, the image of someone shooting up in a dingy alley worked to steer many away from heroin. "But now heroin is a different drug." It's cleaner, it's stronger and it can be easily snorted.
Society's contradictory messages
Despite the fact that society tells kids that heroin is always bad, they receive contradictory messages about drug use. While smoking marijuana is illegal, it's also widely perceived as somewhat "acceptable." Burke said kids know that a lot of Baby Boomers are less judgmental about marijuana use.
At the same time, prescription pain pills are frequently available at home. If a parent or grandparent gets a prescription for a bad back or knee injury, the bottle is in the medicine chest in the bathroom. No child safety cap is going to keep a teenager from gaining access.
The culture has adopted a sort of pain-free mentality, she said. What the kids perceive is the fact that "the drug makes you feel good."
What they don't see, and what they don't truly grasp is the idea that "the drug changes your brain permanently." Burke said they can hear the warning, but they see the contradictions in the behavior of their parents and other adults. Drinking a bit too much is sometimes acceptable; cigarette smoking is not illegal, and power drinks are fine.
Considering the level of development, teenagers tend to believe that even if they dip into a parent's prescription for a few pills, it can't be that bad. After all, it's prescribed by a doctor.
Since that's the mentality, the message in which kids operate, then adults have to fight it. First, make sure that the kids have someone healthy to trust. Stay involved in their lives, she said.
"It's challenging to talk to teenagers, and it's really challenging to talking to middle school kids," said Burke.
Her advice is that no one person can serve as the solution—not a parent, teacher, counselor or other healthy role model. "It's a community issue" that cries out for ending the stigma of addictions.
The Robert Crown Center for Health Education has created a curriculum that's in-sync with the times. The curriculum, while in still in the pilot stage, focuses on prevention. Prevention is crucial, she pointed, because once a person is addicted, it becomes a life-long battle.
"I'm all about prevention, but it has to be done comprehensively." It means the community comes together to beat back this epidemic. In the war against addiction, Burke suggested that educators take one front and churches another. Law enforcement and compassionate others serve another role.
In the pilot curriculum the community accepts the responsibility for learning the program, recognizing the symptoms and understanding the societal stress. It also means a willingness to step in and speak up even when it's uncomfortable, because a life is at risk.
Burke said, "This is a health crisis people. This is not a failure among families. It's an epidemic."
Find out how the battle is fought in the courtroom and on the streets in this Patch series on heroin.