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Heroin use a 'public health crisis'

Deaths in DuPage County on the rise, on track to reach all-time high

DuPage County has seen 15 suspected heroin overdose deaths so far this month, according to county coroner Richard Jorgensen. If confirmed, the number would be a record for the county for a single month.

With 18 confirmed heroin deaths so far this year, DuPage County is on track to surpass last year's record-setting 38 heroin deaths.

"We've been having this problem for a long time, but last month was a marked increase in suspected drug deaths," Jorgensen said. "We're way outside anything we've seen in the past."

The 15 deaths from July are awaiting toxicology reports.

DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin called the recent upswing in heroin use a "public health crisis." He said that heroin today isn't the same as the drug found a few decades ago, and the demographics for those who use it have changed as well.

"What we're dealing with is a drug that is more powerful than anything we've dealt with before," Berlin said. "Heroin today is 10 times stronger than what it was in '60s or '70s. And the fact that people can snort it or smoke it instead of inject it makes it more attractive to young adults."

Users of heroin in the county increasingly fall between the ages of 16 and 24, said Kathleen Burke, CEO of the Robert Crown Center.

"The perception is that heroin is a drug from the old days that nobody messed with," she said. "But with the low cost, rising access and the rising use of pain pills as a gateway has made it more prominent."

Those who have died so far have come from a wide range of backgrounds and areas, Jorgensen said, although Burke said the recent deaths include more youth than ever before. Rates of middle and high schoolers using heroin have increased, she said. That rise, she believes, is also caused by social pressure. Pressure, she says, that some choose to alleviate with $10 bags of heroin.

"The research we did initially indicated there were some potentially underlying mental health issues that kids are not being diagnosed with," she said. "It's not necessarily people experimenting with other drugs. Instead, it's people who are trying to normalize, feel like they think everybody else feels."

Tom Stamas, vice president and clinical director of substance abuse treatment center Serenity House, said that right now, half of his clients are addicted to heroin. That number has drastically increased from an estimated 15 percent a decade ago.

"In the past, you'd say there were more risk factors, but we've seen so many children coming from well-adjusted families that I don't know if that's the case anymore," Stamas said. "We have seen many individuals who come from good families who don't have mental health issues and yet they're coming to us."

But, Stamas said, addiction is more complicated than personal weakness.

"Just know that help is out there and that's why treatment centers are out there – to help people," he said. "Today there is a stigma of treatment where people try to keep things secret."

Burke said education is the only prevention of heroin use. The Robert Crown Center is attempting to change the dialogue with young adults about heroin use to focus on its dangers. Berlin, too, stressed the importance of supporting potential users and former addicts and saving the hard sentencing for those who distribute the drugs.

"We cannot arrest and prosecute our way out of this problem. It's too big," he said. "You can arrest somebody for possession of heroin, we can send them to prison for a year, two years, and they're going to get out in half the time and they're going to keep using."

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