This week a local high school in suburban Milwaukee, WI is hosting a seminar for parents entitled, “Drugs? What’s the Big Deal?” On  the flyer promoting the event it states that heroin is now the drug of choice in the suburban county in which this high school is located.  Unfortunately, you would be hard pressed to find a high school in the United States that has been not affected at some level by heroin or other drug use.  Over the last several years, drug abuse by young people has become increasingly more dangerous  for the simple reason that young people are increasingly using and abusing more dangerous drugs, and often mixing them with alcohol.

How did this happen?  There are of course many complex factors that contribute to the increased use of heroin by young people, but the most important factor is the increased illegal use of prescription drugs.  Prescriptions pain drugs such as oxycontin or vicodin are increasing available to anyone who desires to use or abuse them.  The connection between prescription painkillers and heroin is twofold.  The “high” from abusing prescription painkillers is very similar to the “high” of using heroin, and the cost of heroin on the black market is half the price of prescription painkillers.  These two facts can literally, at times, be a lethal combination, and even more so when mixed with alcohol.

We learned again about the lethality of heroin this week with the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Hoffman, an Academy Award winning actor, was found dead in his apartment with a needle in his arm and fifty bags of heroin nearby.  While his death received front page coverage, the other approximately hundred people who died of a drug overdose in our country on the same day, did not. Hospital statistics tell us that an average of one hundred people die every day of drug overdoses in the United States and most of these never make the news. These numbers merely count the deaths and can’t even begin to quantify the amount of despair, heartbreak, and sorrow that occur in the lives of the addicts and of their families.  “Drugs? What’s the Big Deal?”  Sadness and heartache and death are in fact the big deal.

So what can we do in response to this public health crisis and to the fact that addictions to heroin and other drugs, including alcohol, are an undeniable problem in our country?

  • We can  talk with those we love about drug use and abuse, whether  it be heroin, or alcohol, or something else.  We cannot make progress in addressing this issue unless we keep our eyes open and admit it when there is a potential problem.
  • Build a caring relationship with the teens and young adults in your life. Research shows that young people who feel connected to the adults in their lives have a reduced rate of drug and alcohol use.
  • Talk about this issue in your family, your school, your faith community, your       neighborhood, and even in your workplace. Talk about what each of these groups of people you are involved with can do to help prevent addictions from developing in and around them.
  • Be honest with yourself. If you are concerned about your own use of drugs and/or alcohol, talk with someone and seek help now.
  • If you  have  prescription painkillers in your home, be sure you safeguard them from young people and dispose properly of any unused prescriptions.
  • If you are concerned that someone you love may be abusing drugs and/or alcohol, take the risk and talk to them about your concern.  Don’t make the mistake of waiting for them to bring it up.  Let them know that you care about them, are concerned about their well being, and are there to help.  Don’t judge.
  • Remember that an addiction is a brain disease and needs medical attention to promote healing.  Help the person with the addiction find medical care.
  •  Become informed about drugs, what they do, how you can get help or offer help by familiarizing yourself with helpful websites such as www.drugfree.org.  The more information you have, the better equipped you will be to help someone if the need should ever arise.

Drug and alcohol abuse is not an issue that affects “other people.” Every one of us most likely cares about someone whose life has been affected by drug and/or alcohol addiction.  We must keep talking about this and keep raising our consciousness so that together we can make a difference in lessening the heartache and pain that go hand in hand with addiction of any type.

Wouldn’t it be great if someday there was not a need for a class entitled, “Drugs? What’s the Big Deal?”  That day is not now, but now is the time to wonder, “What can I do in my part of the world to begin to make that a possibility?”

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