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Article updated: 9/22/2013 6:46 AM

Naperville taking comprehensive approach against heroin

By Marie Wilson

Two years after heroin killed seven young people in Naperville, the community has decided a far-reaching problem needs an equally comprehensive solution.

Attacking heroin from a unified front is the idea behind the city's revamped social services grant, which is funding three efforts to reach all segments of the community with heroin-prevention messages.

"It really encompasses schools, faith communities and businesses," said IdaLynn Wenhold, executive director of the nonprofit KidsMatter. "This is intended to be a communitywide movement."

KidsMatter is launching ParentsMatterToo, which will include a website with videos about drug use issues, the formation of parent conversation circles and a speaker series.

The Robert Crown Center for Health Education in Hinsdale is developing videos for the program about how parents can talk to children about the drug.

Naperville-based 360 Youth Services is beginning a communications blitz offering web resources about ways parents can fight teen heroin abuse.

"We know parents are so busy," said Karen Jarczyk, prevention director with 360 Youth Services. "We know they would like additional information in terms of how to keep kids healthy and safe when it comes to substances, but it's hard to find the time."

Social service grant funds also are supporting two programs to fight suicide, which experts say can be spurred by the same mental issues that lead youths to drugs.

"The crossover between drug abuse and mental health issues can be significant at times," said the Rev. Scott Mitchell, a licensed psychologist and executive director of Samaritan Interfaith, a Naperville-based nonprofit group offering counseling services. "We have to talk more openly about mental health issues."

The need to prevent heroin deaths and suicides was discussed heavily during this spring's campaign for Naperville City Council. Council member Judith Brodhead, who was re-elected in April, said making $73,000 available for these efforts beginning May 1 is a positive step toward avoiding senseless deaths.

"This is a shocking problem for parents," she said. "So they sometimes do not get information."

The problem

The year 2011 is an especially relevant one for heroin abuse in Naperville because police say seven young people died from the drug during those 12 months. Since then, five more heroin deaths have been confirmed, drug unit Sgt. Nick Liberio said -- three in 2012 and two this year. The cause of two more deaths this year is pending, and Liberio said he is unsure if heroin will prove to have been involved.

Heroin is classified as an opioid, and it's a central nervous system depressant that creates a detached sense of euphoria, according to "Understanding Suburban Heroin Use," a 2011 study conducted by Roosevelt University and Robert Crown. Users are relatively lucid and not giggly or overly hungry when under the influence, but they may get sleepy.

The drug has a short half-life at roughly 90 minutes, so once a user becomes dependent, he or she will need to snort or shoot it two or three times a day to avoid withdrawal, which experts say feels similar to the flu. Becoming dependent is tough to avoid, as heroin is second only to nicotine in its ability to cause users to feel the need to get high.

Many of the 15 users interviewed in the "Understanding Suburban Heroin Use" study said they tried heroin after becoming addicted to pain pills like Vicodin or OxyContin, also opioids.

One way parents can discourage kids from heading toward heroin is to rid medicine cabinets of leftover pain pills once they are no longer needed. Offering other tips, expert resources and parent discussion forums is where the newly funded social service initiatives step in.


The city council gave KidsMatter $24,150 to create ParentsMatterToo, which is taking a three-pronged approach and focusing on the importance of raising kids who avoid drugs.

First, parentsmattertoo.org launches Oct. 11 with videos from experts about what to do when parents suspect their child is using drugs. Diane Overgard, a Naperville-area life coach, is leading ParentsMatterToo, and she said the videos are meant to make parents comfortable with people they could contact for help.

Parent conversation circles soon will form, meeting at schools, conference rooms of local corporations, restaurants, park district facilities and coffee shops like Cafe 'N Play, run by Cathy Subber of Naperville Moms Network. The groups will go where parents already are but will be facilitated by trained volunteers to "allow parents to talk about critical issues impacting the lives of their kids," Wenhold said, be it heroin, competition among students or pressure to be perfect.

Overgard said a comprehensive calendar of speakers on all parental education topics will be the third element of ParentsMatterToo, providing one list of opportunities to become more informed.

Health, not heroin

Beginning last year, a Robert Crown heroin prevention program has been incorporated into health classes at several middle and high schools in suburban Cook, DuPage, Lake and Will counties, including Neuqua Valley High School and Crone and Scullen middle schools in Indian Prairie Unit District 204. That program continues this year funded by private donors.

But the health education center also got $7,000 from the city's social services grant to fund "Helping Your Teen Avoid Heroin: Learning Tools for Parents." Robert Crown is producing three videos -- one about how heroin addiction affect the brain and body, another on understanding adolescent development and helping teens make healthy choices, and a third on how to talk to children about heroin and other drugs.

"Parents are a significant group to help kids stay away from heroin," said Kathleen Burke, Robert Crown's executive director.

The videos are set to be available this fall on the website of the Naperville Collaborative Youth Team hosted by KidsMatter, kidsmatter2us.org/collaborative-youth-team.

The Power of Choice

Another web resource that debuted this month is thepowerofchoice.info. Launched as a subset of 360 Youth Services' 10-year-old, state-funded initiative The Power of Choice, the new website begins a communications campaign called "Parents Use Your Power." It's funded with $13,250 from the city's social services grant, and prevention director Jarczyk said the funding is supporting advertisements that direct parents to the site for drug prevention information.

"We've compiled all the best information there is, all the research on what parents can do to make a difference," Jarczyk said.

The site offers middle and high school versions of a newsletter with "parenting power tips," like "clearly communicate to your teen that you are proud of them and the healthy choices they routinely make," as well as a link to a drug use study given to high school students in Naperville Unit District 203 and Indian Prairie Unit District 204 this April. The survey found 98 percent of students had not used heroin in the past year.

Suicide prevention

While ParentsMatterToo is starting parent conversation circles, Samaritan Interfaith is beginning Circles of Care. These mental health teams among faith communities will work to identify people who are experiencing mental health issues, especially those who may be suicidal, and begin to get them the help they need, Samaritan's Executive Director Mitchell said.

"If we can equip those faith communities, they can help in a significant way toward the prevention of suicide," he said.

The circles will develop after a workshop Wednesday featuring former Presbyterian minister Russell Crabtree, who will teach participants how to spot people who are at risk for suicide, how to talk with them and how to apply those skills among their congregations, Mitchell said.

Also funded to assist with suicide prevention is the Edward Foundation's Signs of Suicide program, which received $24,600. Katie Andersen, community liaison with Edward's Linden Oaks mental health hospital said the program is in its second year at 18 schools in districts 203 and 204, where teachers are given kits that help teach students depression and suicide are related, and suicide is a "very permanent solution to a temporary problem."

With so many stressors on teens, Mitchell said the communitywide approach created in part by the city's social service grant is the best way to prevent future tragedies.

"It's a huge compliment to the city council that they're being proactive in putting funds out specifically for these kinds of issues," Mitchell said about the heroin abuse and suicide prevention campaigns.

"The more funding, the more impact on the community and the more opportunities to collaborate."

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