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Insidious: Heroin Deaths Increase Rapidly in Suburbs as Young People Fail to See Risk

A heroin death happens every eight days in DuPage County. Panelists break down this complex epidemic at Elmhurst College forum.

State Sen. Matt Murphy, DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin, Vice President-Clinical Services at Haymarket Center Dan Lustig, and Robert Crown Center CEO Kathleen Burke (Credit: Karen Chadra)
State Sen. Matt Murphy, DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin, Vice President-Clinical Services at Haymarket Center Dan Lustig, and Robert Crown Center CEO Kathleen Burke (Credit: Karen Chadra)

If recent news reports about the heroin epidemic in the suburbs haven't sparked a sense of urgency in the minds of local residents, being in a room full of families who have lost loved ones to an overdose will.

As people from all walks of life filed into the Frick Center at Elmhurst College Tuesday night to learn everything they could about heroin, it quickly became clear many of them had children who are already dead because of heroin. Through teary eyes and with shaky voices, these people from Elmhurst, Lombard and all over DuPage greeted each other, saying things like, "My son died last year" or, "We're coming up on his 'Angel Day.' " 

Another woman's grandson is an addict. "He's still alive," she said, guardedly.

Many are members of GRASP (Grief Recovery After a Substance Passing), and all of the 100 or so audience members came to hear a panel discussion on the new face of heroin in the suburbs. Some could have been panelists, themselves, knowing first-hand that heroin is no longer the last-ditch drug of those shooting up on the streets of the inner city. 

Retired Chicago Police Captain John Roberts, co-founder of Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization (HERO), opened the discussion by sharing the heartbreaking loss of his own son, Billy, in 2009.

Billy was 11 days into recovery when he relapsed. 

"His best friend called and said, 'Mr. Roberts, I don't think Billy's breathing,' " Roberts said, the audience hanging onto his every word. "It's the thing we feared the most, the thing every family dealing with a drug problem fears the most."

What is it About Heroin?  

Heroin has creeped into our schools and communities so quietly, even Robert Crown Center for Health Education, a premier resource in suburban Chicago for educating kids about their bodies, didn't see it coming at first. 

Heroin isn't quiet any more. It's so bad now, DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said, that every eight days somebody in DuPage dies from a heroin overdose. 

Seventy-two people have died from heroin overdoses in DuPage County in 20 months, and the number is growing, Berlin said. Thirty-four heroin deaths have been recorded so far this year. No drug is more addictive, and the heroin of today is "far more powerful" than heroin of the 1960s and 70s, he said. 

"Heroin knows no boundaries," Berlin said. "It's not just teens. It's adults, professionals. We've seen overdose victims from 15 to 64 years old. Every socioeconomic area of the community is affected by heroin."

So why, when the outcome is so devastating, would anyone even start using heroin? For one thing, users no longer have to stick a needle in their arm to get high.

"There used to be a stigma associated with heroin. People were afraid to use it because you had to inject it," he said. "That is no longer the case. People are snorting it, smoking it."

The level of perceived risk also has dropped across the board. Young people think if it's not injected it's less addictive or not addictive at all. As perceived risk drops, usage increases. 

"They don't think using it one time can get them addicted," Berlin said. 

It's cheap and convenient—just a short drive east on I-290, the Heroin Highway, to the west side of Chicago to pick it up. And, dealers will often give it away for free because they know that after the first, second or third time, "they've got you hooked," said Dan Lustig of Haymarket Center, a substance abuse treatment center in Chicago. 

That Fateful First Time

Lustig said there is a strong correlation between heroin use and pain medications, like oxycontin and vicodin. 

Athletes who have been injured and end up on pain medicines sometimes become addicted, then go looking for that next high. The majority of heroin users begin opiate addiction through legal means, Lustig said, citing a young man who was introduced to opiates after a dental procedure.

Lustig urges parents to remove unused medications from the home immediately. 

"I had surgery done once, and they gave me three different bottles, a 90-day supply, of (pain medication)," he said. "It was over the top. Why does anyone need that amount of pain medication?"

Audrey Albright's son Michael tried vicodin, codeine, hydrocodone, xanax and klonopin before trying heroin for the first time. Michael went to York High School, then moved to Lombard with his family when he was 18. He died at 21, one year ago, after three stints in rehab.

She said his attention deficit disorder and depression, combined with prescription drugs and peer pressure, eventually led to his heroin use. 

"No one wakes up and says, 'Gee, I think I'll be a heroin addict,' " she said.

She spends her time now trying to get the word out to others.

"If I could help save just one person, it's worth it," she said.

No Profile of a Heroin User 

"Every child is at risk," said Kathleen Burke of Robert Crown Center.

Those with risk factors, such as a family history of mental illness or addiction, have a greater chance of becoming addicted.

The days of parents saying, "It can never happen to my child," must end, panelists said. Stigma is still keeping people from seeking the help they need.

One woman who spoke after the panel presentation said her son graduated from York in 2005 as a heroin addict. She, too, got a phone call that her son wasn't breathing. The Elmhurst police saved his life, she said. He's in jail now, which she finds comforting. He can't O.D. in there.

"He relapsed 13 times," she said. "He's in DuPage County and he's going to prison. I'm relaxed for the first time because he's in jail" where he can't use heroin.

She said her daughter, a senior at York, told her she could go to school "tomorrow" and buy heroin.

She said it took her seven years to be able to say her son is a heroin addict, and there is still a stigma attached to it. The schools try to "shove it under the carpet," and people still look down on her as if she's a bad mother, she said.

"I'm just like everyone else who lives in Elmhurst," she said. "We just need to make sure no parents have to go through what I've gone through."

Warning Signs

So, what should a parent look for? If your child is using heroin, would you know? Warning signs include: 

  • Failing or diminishing performance in school
  • Lack of regard for personal hygiene
  • Changes in lifestyle
  • Tendency toward recklessness
  • Disregard for consequences
  • Withdrawal from friends
  • Runny nose
  • Needle marks on the body
  • Slurred speech
  • Nodding off
  • Display of hostility
  • Having no future plans

Treatment is almost never successful the first time. Or the second. Or, even the third, Lustig said. It usually takes 20 years to reach one-year sobriety.

"People don't understand that when they go into treatment, this is a lifelong problem," he said. 

Of those who use heroin, more than 50 percent will be dead before the age of 50, he said. 

"In the last two years, we've lost more people to heroin than the entire Vietnam War," he said.

Carry the Message Home

"The silence has to stop," Burke said.

Robert Crown Center is working on a pilot program to systematically tackle the problem of heroin in the suburbs. Law enforcement is doing its part to step up prosecutions, but it's going to take a lot more than that to get it under control, Berlin said. 

"We're not going to arrest and prosecute our way out of this problem,' " he said.

The panel stressed the most important thing parents and community members can do is to spread the word.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please, do not leave here tonight and let this be the epidemic that nobody's talking about," Roberts said. "Please join us. Be a hero. Take a stand against this drug. Push back with everything you've got. Doing nothing is not an option. We have yet to see how bad this can (get)."

Christina Marie Schram September 26, 2013 at 07:19 AM
This is something that needs to stop. We can't keep losing our young to the dangers of drugs. It's never too late to start an intervention. If you know something is going on, don't hesitate to confront the person. We need to fund more programs like Operation Snowball in schools. We need something like that at the adult level too. We need ot be more involved in our childrens lives.
NancyC September 26, 2013 at 08:39 AM
DARE is part of the problem here. It's lessons leave kids believing all drugs are equally harmful, Cigarettes,marijuana,alcohol,heroine. When they find out that is not true they stop believing anything they were taught. We've lived here since 1992 and known since 1995 that heroine was big in Elmhurst. Kids need to be able to work at a younger age and earn their own cash instead of spending their un earned allowances carelessly.
Jim Court September 26, 2013 at 10:02 AM
The problem exists BECAUSE of the illegal nature of drugs. Such hypocrisy. We wake up in the morning and have our coffee and donuts. Some smoke a cigarette. Later we indulge in fats, salts, and sweets. We escape into the world of sports and get high when our team wins. We chase after relationships and sex to alter our mood. We buy lottery tickets and gamble. We become workaholics to obtain the rush of buying and owning. We go shopping to lift our mood. We take pills for aches to relieve our pain and suffering. We drive fast cars and motorcycles. We sky dive and do many activities that give us an adrenaline rush. Police and fireman enjoy the adrenaline rush,. Is this not a "high". We have violent video games, roller coasters, and enjoy hollow ween and the scary aspects. We have fright movies and violent movies. Soap operas and reality shows. Criminal shows are big. Lets face it. We as humans purposely and actively seek these things. The use of drugs is no different. We sure embrace alcohol with a passion. The concept of forbidden fruits is not lost on the young and immature teenager. We all want what we can't have. Being illegal means that there is no quality control. The same amount taken yesterday with no negative effects can kill me the next day. All humans avoid pain and seek pleasure. Enlightened Police groups actually support legalization coupled with education, treatment, and controls. Who currently is benefiting? Everyone in the legal system Lawyers, Police, Judges, Jailers, probation officers. The violence in neighborhoods is related to the huge profits possible. The same in Mexico. The illegal aspect supports the Taliban. Let a a legitimate company manufacture distribute, proper quality controls take place, tax it and place those funds into education and treatment. Few, if any would be dying. We have an unrealistic view of this problem. Fear is used to support traditional methods which in truth, have absolutely failed and in fact have lowered the cost and increased the potency of these drugs. Let the conversation begin and Karen, please make sure that this does not get removed because some do not support my opinion. This is a democracy, isn't it?
naabt.org September 26, 2013 at 12:26 PM
Get help for heroin and painkiller addictions in a doctor’s office with the prescription medication buprenorphine. Go to TreatmentMatch.org - a nonprofit organization providing a free and confidential way to find certified doctors who can help. Learn more about bupe at naabt.org
Ken September 26, 2013 at 01:20 PM
Making illegal drugs legal is a foolish answer to the problem. Making them legal will not stop the problem. First of all, just like with alcohol, those under the legal age will find a way to consume them. The now legal drugs will be heavily taxed, just like cigarettes today, meaning the black market will still be flourishing. The potency of the now legal drugs will be limited by the government so again, stronger ones would be available through the black market. People who become addicted to the now legal drugs may eventually resort to thievery like the addicts today or just blow all their savings to support their habit. Finally, look at all the problems caused today by alcohol----drunk driving, domestic violence, missed work, ill health problems, etc., do we want to increase all of this by making illegal drugs now legal? I think the problem is that we aren't hard enough on drug dealers. Longer sentences in a hell hole jail or a swift death along with securer borders. The Arab countries don't have a problem with drugs like we have nor did the old USSR. They knew how to deal with the situation before it became a problem.
NancyC September 26, 2013 at 01:51 PM
Jim I disagree that : "The problem exists BECAUSE of the illegal nature of drugs", it would be more accurate to blame fallen natures tendency to rebel. The illegality sends a message to persons to be forewarned and aware of the possible consequences of using or doing the harmful thing. It is their free choice to throw caution to the wind and they'll find what they want, when they want it. People can choose to abuse anything - food for example-should it be illegal to eat more than 2500 calories a day-in order to keep people from becoming over weight? If it were illegal to consume more would that be the cause of the abuse?
Idont Givitout September 26, 2013 at 01:53 PM
72 deaths in 20 months , come on, this is hardly a problem. Back in the 60's it was much worse. And heroine never "needed" injection, that was just a way to get the high back faster, it did matter if you were a junkie back then how quickly one could get back to being high. And no I am not speaking from first hand experience. Never have used any illegal drugs and don't care to use the ones that are legal either. Back then, for me, it was the fact that MY PARENTS taught me that I didn't need anything to be happy with my self and that fun can be found easily and naturally. Not the school even with all the disgusting video (movies to you younger people) I was made to watch in Jr. high (Sandburg). BTW I was on the AV squad then so I got out of regular classes to operate the projectors, cool back then for me). Perhaps what we need (for the youth) is just more parents that actually care for their children instead of giving in to the newest instant gratification object of the day to placate them and this problem will go away naturally. Leave to the "scourges" what is theirs and hopefully soon they will be gone too! We've seen overdose victims from 15 to 64 years old
NancyC September 26, 2013 at 01:56 PM
Ken, I am curious where your information on Arab countries, the USSR and drug use comes from? The govt in Russia turns their head on alcohol abuse, it's easier to control people when they are under the influence. My father spent several years in the mid East. Opium is not only grown there but widely used.
Sydney Jayme September 27, 2013 at 03:29 AM
Elmhurst Patch- Thank you for bringing attention to this epidemic and publishing this article that is heartbreaking, enlightening- and unfortunately all too real for some of us. My Aunt, Audrey Alrbight, sent me the link to this article via e-mail. I have published the link on a number of social websites including the following editorial: Insidious: Heroin Deaths Increase Rapidly in Suburbs as Young People Fail to See Risk http://elmhurst.patch.com/groups/police-and-fire/p/insidious-heroin-deaths-increase-exponentially-in-the-suburbs "Push back with everything you've got. Doing nothing is not an option." - John Roberts, co-founder of Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization (HERO) I feel like if I stay silent about this- I would be doing a disservice to this program and to those that are taking a stand and those that have fallen victim to the realities of this epidemic. Mostly I feel I would be letting down my Aunt, who has pushed back with her whole heart. And Michael. Almost one year ago, I woke up to tragic news- an unexpected relapse took the life of my cousin Michael. Instead of celebrating our favorite holiday and ringing in his 22nd year of life... I said my final goodbyes as we laid my childhood best friend to rest. Unfortunately for my family-we have already seen how bad this epidemic can get... The true tragedy in this situation is that it is typical to assume that this type of loss will never happen to you or those you love, so you dismiss the issue and perpetuate the silence of this epidemic. But the truth is, once a week a family receives the same devastating news and bears the same puzzling heartbreak. In short- this could have been me. It could have been you-it could be your daughter, your son, your nephew or niece, your brother, your sister. Anyone who has been blinded by the stigma that co-exists with denial. Anyone who is foolishly unaware that your first go-round with heroin will not be your last. "No one wakes up and says, 'Gee, I think I'll be a heroin addict,'" – Audrey Albright My Aunt is the bravest person I know. To date she has kept Michael’s story alive, attending rallies, support groups, exchanging communications with court officials and Illinois representatives-urging others to find meaning in the life and death of her only son, Michael. The life of a talented guitar player, writer, artist, friend, nephew, cousin, son, who could melt a room with his smile and warm your heart with his hugs. A life that was taken much too early and tragically by a battle he could not win. Addiction is not a crime-it is a disease. Overdose is a reality. Heroin is a battle few can win. "Of those who use heroin, more than 50 percent will be dead before the age of 50..." "In the last two years, we've lost more people to heroin than the entire Vietnam War" – Dan Lustig of Haymarket Center (a substance abuse treatment center in Chicago) Please do not disregard this article or this information. It is deep-but it is real. I am afraid there are many more Michaels–many that I will be unable to save… as I could not even save my own Michael. But for the rest of my life, I will try. I will stand with my Aunt and I will push back. "If I could help save just one person, it's worth it." – My Aunt Audrey Albright Again- thank you for this publication. For pushing back.
Karen Chadra (Editor) September 27, 2013 at 09:26 AM
Thanks for your comments, Sydney. It was a pleasure to meet your Aunt Audrey. She's an amazing person and I admire her strength. I'm so sorry for what happened to your cousin. The panel touched on so many important things that I couldn't fit into the scope of this article, and you bring up a very good point that was discussed that night: Addiction is not a crime, it is a disease. "It is a medical condition—a chronic, relapsing condition and we have to get our arms around that," Dan Lustig said. My best to your family.
Linda117 September 27, 2013 at 10:39 AM
I agree with you NancyC. One you lie to the kids about drugs, then they are sure that they know more than the adults who are teaching them.
Laura September 27, 2013 at 12:50 PM
I am the mother of the son who graduated York as a heroin addict that spoke at this forum. Until this horrible drug entered my life I was no different than most families. Heroin was something that happened to "those" type of families not mine. I am amazed at the number of closed minded people who want to blame me for my son’s addiction. Contrary to Idont's belief, I care for my children and have never provided the newest instant gratification object her/she refers to. This type of thinking is the Stigma that is associated with Heroin. It is this type of thinking that will allow this drug to continue to affect our children. This problem is real. Not only is the school sweeping this under the rug, most parents in DuPage are doing the same. Idont’s comments go on to say “72 deaths in 20 months, come on, this is hardly a problem”. Not all heroin addicts die from their addiction. Many just go on to exist, they do not live, they only exist. In 2010 I was advised that ONLY 3% of York students were affected by Heroin use. Three percent of the current student enrollment is 80 children. That is eighty children who have an addiction that will more than likely ruin their lives and their family’s lives, IF they live. This is only one town. It is sad that Idont does not feel that this is a problem in DuPage county. Most of the families this affects don’t even know yet that their children are Heroin addicts as they do not understand the signs of this addition. When you go home tonight I hope and pray that all parents go home and educate themselves on the signs of Heroin addiction. Your family and your childs future is worth this investment. Trust me….. IT CAN HAPPEN TO YOU.
Karen Chadra (Editor) September 27, 2013 at 01:21 PM
Thank you, Laura. I hope your son comes back strong and beats this monster. Thank you for speaking out.
Bill Shannon September 28, 2013 at 01:23 AM
Legalize and tax. Thats he only way. Prohibition doesn't work and is far too costly in terms of dollars and lives. Most people who use drugs don't experience problems and if we made all drugs legally available and concentrated our efforts on education and treatment we'd be better off as a nation. Legalization ends the black market overnight, brings in much needed tax revenue and allows adult citizens the liberty to alter their brain chemistry as they see fit.
Laura October 28, 2013 at 02:56 PM
Bill ... Where did you get your information from that allowed you to come to the conclusion that most people who use drugs don't experience problems. Not sure if I have every heard of recreational Heroin usage. Please do not speak on behalf of a drug that you do not understand.

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