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updated: 10/19/2011 2:22 PM

Study explains why people use heroin

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For nearly a decade, newspapers headlines, police departments, drug treatment facilities and coroners offices have reported a dramatic increase in suburban heroin use.

Now, a new study explains why people use heroin, what leads them to try it, and attempts to paint a picture of a suburban Chicago heroin users. The findings in the "Understanding Suburban Heroin Use" study -- believed to be the first of its kind in the country -- were presented Tuesday night during a community forum in Downers Grove hosted by the Robert Crown Center for Health Education's Reed Hruby Heroin Prevention Project.

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The 10-month study of suburban students, parents and heroin users concluded that most people have little knowledge about heroin when they first use it, and one-third of those surveyed starting using it after being addicted to or misusing prescription pain pills such as OxyContin or Vicodin.

The study also found that more than 75 percent of respondents had a concurrent mental health condition, such as depression, ADHD or bipolar disorder, and used heroin to self-medicate. Two-thirds of those surveyed displayed "sensation-seeking behaviors," which researchers translated to mean they got a thrill out of driving to the West Side of Chicago to buy heroin without getting caught. The study also found that the suburban heroin user is white, and the average age of first use is 18.

Tuesday's forum featured a panel of experts who discussed topics such as the science of addiction and how parents can address the problem. The website drugabuse.gov was repeatedly mentioned as an excellent resource. The discussion before the audience of 200 people included the controversial subjects of drug testing in schools and next week's introduction of Senate Bill 1701, which would grant limited immunity to anyone who calls 911 to report a drug overdose.

One panelist was Stevenson High School substance abuse prevention coordinator Stephanie Elsass, who said kids are so sophisticated now but also so stressed out. She said students suffering from depression and anxiety are at high risk for drug use, and suicide rates nationwide are climbing.

"The problem is getting out of hand, and it's frightening," she said.

The study is the first part of a three-year project commissioned by a $340,000 grant from the Hruby family of Burr Ridge, who lost their grandson, Reed, to a heroin overdose. The research was conducted by a team from Roosevelt University's Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.

The next steps are to use the study to develop an educational response.

"Education is the key," said panelist Dr. T. Celeste Napier, director of the Center for Compulsive Behavior and Addiction at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "We must understand the beast we're dealing with ... and we must take a multidisciplinary approach. Because it's also about our environment, our family and our peers."

The complete study is available at www.robertcrown.org. The forum will be rebroadcast for free on Comcast OnDemand.

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