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Study: Young heroin users don’t realize risks

Laurel Mateykassistant principal Plano High School leads discussi during community forum heroheld Midwestern University Downers Grove. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times

Laurel Mateyka, assistant principal of Plano High School, leads discussion during a community forum on heroin held at Midwestern University in Downers Grove. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 21, 2011 9:34AM

A 10-month study of young heroin users from Chicago’s western suburbs concluded that those users have little knowledge about the drug and its effects when they first use it.

“These young people didn’t know what they were getting into,” said Kathie Kane-Willis of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University. “They didn’t understand when they tried heroin how easy it would be for them to become dependent, and they didn’t know how severe the withdrawal symptoms could be.”

Prevention project

The study, “Understanding Suburban Heroin Use,” was done for the Robert Crown Center for Health Education’s Reed Hruby Heroin Prevention Project by a research team from Roosevelt University’s Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.

The study included in-depth anonymous interviews with 15 current and former heroin users, ages 22 to 31, from the western suburbs. Responses from the heroin users, whose average age was 18 when they first used it, indicate most believed when they “snorted or sniffed” heroin they were less likely to become addicted. Nearly two-thirds of the study respondents said they turned to heroin after first using prescription pain medications, or as a way to “come down” from cocaine use.

The study also indicates more than 75 percent of respondents either self-reported or exhibited signs of a mental health condition during the interview process, including depression, anxiety, ADHD or bipolar disorder. Two-thirds displayed sensation-seeking behaviors.

“This research confirms our theory that successful heroin prevention and education efforts must be comprehensive and acknowledge the pain or dysfunction young people are trying to escape through drug use,” said Kathleen Burke, chief executive officer of the Crown Center.

Community forum

Findings of the study were presented to about 250 people who attended a Community Forum on Heroin Tuesday night at Midwestern University in Downers Grove. The forum was presented by Crown Center’s heroin prevention project in partnership with State Rep. Patti Bellock, R-47th, of Hinsdale, and the DuPage Regional Office of Education.

There also was a focus group with 28 young suburban participants who had been involved with drugs in high school. In addition, more than 100 suburban parents were surveyed.

Focus group respondents mentioned inconsistent and incomplete experiences with drug education in school. And about half of the 105 parents surveyed said they didn’t know where to go to get accurate drug information or how to start conversations with their children about drug use.

“The message here is that educators, parents and other influences must paint an accurate and authentic picture of the risks and harm associated with heroin in order to reach youth,” Burke said.

“Families need more information to create open lines of communication so that young people have a safe place to talk about their problems and pain without turning to heroin.”

In May, the Robert Crown Center announced its partnership with the Reed Hruby Foundation and the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy to develop one of the nation’s first heroin education and prevention projects. The goal is to stop the growing trend of heroin use and death across the Chicago area and the nation.

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