It seems as if every day there is a new story about a young person who has died as the result of a heroin overdose.
The stories are heartbreaking, a tragic reminder of life’s fragility. The victims are frequently beyond their high school years, but for many, drug use of some kind began in their early teen years.
There was a time when the phrase “drug addict” dredged up images of a homeless “junkie” curled up on the sidewalk of some dingy city alley.
But the face of drug addicts has changed, as the tragic deaths of “Glee” actor Cory Monteith last summer and, more recently, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman of an apparent heroin overdose, remind us.
The actors’ deaths have brought to the forefront discussion about heroin, particularly its increased availability and use by young people. Officials throughout the Northeast point to the crackdown on prescription painkillers as significant in the rise of heroin use. With prescription drugs lacking, young users may be turning more frequently to heroin, which is both inexpensive and readily available.
According to a CNN report, “Heroin use has exploded in what is being described as an epidemic on New York’s Long Island, where addiction counselors are seeing users as young as 12 – many from middle-class, suburban families. Several factors have contributed to this ‘perfect storm’ of addiction according to experts – among them, proximity to major airports and transportation centers, and a statewide crackdown on prescription painkillers, that has had the unintended effect of pushing more kids to cheaper and more accessible heroin.”
A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) survey indicates 3 in 100 U.S. high school students have used heroin, a statistic that comes from CDC’s 2011 survey of 15,425 students in grades 9-12 from 42 states. That figure is of students who were surveyed in school, and does not include teenagers who are truant.
Also troubling is the fact that teenagers say they have reasonably easy access to heroin, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). Nearly 30 percent of 12th graders say it is easy to obtain, and even 8th graders (12.6 percent) say they have access to the drug.
Heroin is highly addictive and withdrawal is extremely painful. The drug quickly breaks down the immune system, ultimately leaving a user sickly, extremely thin and bony and, eventually, dead.
One of the concerns of law enforcement officials is what is being sold as heroin. In neighboring Massachusetts, police officials warn that, like many street drugs, you don’t necessarily get what you pay for.
“You don’t know what’s out there and you don’t know what it’s laced with,” Brockton police Lt. Paul Bonanca told The Herald News (Fall River). Bonanca is investigating two recent heroin deaths in his city, located about 25 miles south of Boston.
Whitman, Mass., Detective Eric Campbell, a member of the WEB Major Crimes and Drug Task Force, which is comprised of several local police agencies, agreed. “They think they’re buying heroin and they’re not,” Campbell told the newspaper. “You don’t know what they’re cutting it with. They could be cutting it with baby formula or rat poison. It could be anything. It’s very concerning.”
Whether or not you believe your child would use heroin, the fact that it could be present in our schools warrants a conversation – particularly about prescription drug abuse and its role as a predictor of heroin use.
There’s another compelling reason to have the conversation: According to Partnership for a Drug-Free America, kids who learn about the risks of drugs from their parents are up to 50 percent less likely to use.
Here are some resources to help arm yourself with information and start the conversation:
- The Drug Talk: 7 New Tips for Today’s Parents from LiveScience
- From No Heroin in Heaven, a website started by the family of Jennifer Turner, a 25-year-old who recently died of a heroin overdose: Warning Signs
- From Destination Hope, an addiction treatment center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.,: Parents and Teachers
- From Newport Academy, a teen treatment center in Orange, Calif.: Teen Heroin Abuse
- The Foundation for a Drug-Free World offers a freeTruth About Drugs Information Kit.
- From Philly.com:Teen heroin use an unfortunate reality
- PsychCentral has an informative story, How to Talk to Your Kids When You Think They’re Using Drugs.
- CDC’s 2011 study: Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance