How heroin series led to mental health project

Inspiration to launch an in-depth project on mental health crystallized for Marie Wilson while covering a heroin forum in Naperville.

A counselor at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health told Marie the purpose of the event was more than educating parents about heroin, but to get at the underlying cause. Often, Linden Oaks professionals say, it's a string of events launched by untreated mental illness.

Another defining moment occurred as Marie interviewed a Schaumburg heroin addict whose three daughters are in the care of her parents. The mother said she has bipolar disorder and a desire to self-medicate during her manic episodes is part of what led her to get hooked on heroin.

One national expert told Marie the relationship between heroin use and mental illness “is like the chicken and the egg” — it's impossible to tell which came first.

Marie and staff writer Jessica Cilella have been the mainstays of our series: Heroin in the suburbs: Through their eyes. (Brief plug for the DH: That series won a prestigious Lisagor Award this month for non-deadline reporting.) The series began in September, and we have two more parts to publish: How the judiciary combats the heroin scourge through alternative sentencing and other programs; and a wrapup piece on whether we're making any progress in the battle.

We reserve the right to revisit the heroin series, but starting with the story by Marie on today's front page, you'll see her new special report focus for the upcoming months. Much of the groundwork already has been laid by the knowledge she's gleaned from covering heroin, but Marie also has applied to attend a two-day seminar in Dallas next month that focuses on the delicate topic of how to best cover mental health issues. She hopes to better understand “the complexities of mental health issues, gather accurate statistics and tell the human side of the story.”

Today's story is not as dramatic as, say, our piece on the Schaumburg mom unable to care for her kids, a South Elgin addict struggling to overcome addiction or a Medinah mother who lost her 24-year-old son to heroin overdose assuaging her grief by crusading to save others — but it's at least as important. The experts tell us drug abuse and mental illness often are inextricably linked.

One theme of today's package is that people seem to be getting that point. Some of the experts we talked to say mental health seminars regularly are fully booked. And the sessions aren't just to inform but to make secondary responders out of anyone who wants to be so trained. In short, these Mental Health First Aid sessions tell you what to do. The tips, as outlined in the story, include: “Assess the risk for suicide or harm. Then listen without judgment. Give reassurance. Encourage the person in need to seek appropriate professional help. And encourage them to find support and employ self-help strategies.”

Sounds pretty basic, but another expert puts it this way: “If you run across somebody in the mall who's having a panic attack, would you know what to do? Most people don't.”

That's rather remarkable, considering that about half the population is directly affected by mental health issues, the experts tell us.

And what could be more important than becoming knowledgeable about that topic?

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