From health care professionals to social workers to teachers and parents, about 400 people turned out Friday for an event aimed at stemming an epidemic that’s claimed 205 lives in Will County since 1999.
This year alone, Will County Coroner Pat O’Neil said there have been another 10 heroin-related deaths.
John Roberts, co-founded of the HERO (Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization) Foundation, spoke about losing his son, Billy, to the drug at age 19 in 2009.
A retired Chicago police captain, Roberts said treatment, education and prevention — not prosecution — are the answers to solving the heroin problem.
“This is an illness,” he said. “It’s more than a crime — it’s a health epidemic. It’s a serious, serious illness. Treat it as that.”
The April 13 event, held at 's JFK Sports Center, was a joint effort of the HERO Foundation and Will County HELPS, a county initiative spearheaded by Will County Executive Larry Walsh.
It drew speakers in the areas of treatment, law enforcement and prevention, along with recovering addicts and family members who know firsthand the pain the drug inflicts on users and their loved ones.
Over the last decade, heroin has become the drug of choice in Chicagoland, with its ready availability and inexpensiveness contributing to its popularity. Its potency has also increased, with lethal results.
“You only choose [to do heroin] once … then it’s got you,” said Dr. Paul Lauridsen, clinical director at Stepping Stones Services, a Joliet treatment center.
Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow said too many people are unaware of how large the heroin problem has gotten. In New Lenox alone this year, there have been at least five arrests for heroin possession, according to the police blotter, as well as one for the manufacture and delivery.
“Most responsible adults in this community are completely ignorant of what’s going on,” he said. “It’s going on under our noses, and that’s why this is so important.”
Bill Patrianakos spoke of his ongoing struggle with addiction, stressing the importance of education.
“My family … couldn’t have done anything better,” he said. “At first, they didn’t know much about it. The more [my mom] learned about it, the more she was able to help.”
Keynote speaker Jeff Coady of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said it will take a largescale community effort to put a stop to the epidemic.
Friday’s forum and youth rally, he said, were a good start.
“It’s this kind of mobilization that we need to beat this,” he said.
Erasing the stigma
For Roberts’ son, help came too late. Despite his years of public service, Roberts learned that his insurance wouldn’t cover certain types of treatment.
Lack of insurance often means addicts are placed on a waiting list for treatment.
Glasgow, who spoke about the successful Will County Drug Court program, noted a sad truth.
“If you want to get your treatment paid for in Will County, get arrested and come to my Drug Court,” he said. “There’s a Catch-22 for you. Yet John couldn’t get treatment for his son. It’s crazy.”
Treating heroin addiction as an illness, rather than a crime, is the solution, Roberts said.
“Maybe we’ll even find find crime going down,” he said.
Right now, about 30 people are currently enrolled in Will County Drug Court, Glasgow said. The program offers addicts the chance for treatment instead of incarceration.
“That way there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” Glasgow said, and a chance for recovering addicts to move on and get a job without a felony conviction hanging over their heads.
“We can’t just keep pulverizing people in the court system,” he said. “It’s counterproductive.”
Roberts stressed the need to erase the stigma associated with heroin addiction.
“We’ve got to knock that out completely. Stigma is a word that does a lot of harm,” he said, describing his initial reaction to learning of his son’s addiction.
“‘Oh my God, I can’t let anybody know,’” Roberts said. “Biggest mistake of my life."
An ounce of prevention
Kathleen Burke, CEO of the Robert Crown Centers for Health Education, said starting next fall, the organization will team with local school districts to roll out a prevention education program for seventh and eight grade, eventually branching into high school
“This is not a quick fix,” Burke said. “This is not one class,” she added, saying Robert Crown staff will work with participating school districts to integrate the comprehensive program into the curriculum.