Prevention Stressed to Amity HS Students
Prevention is the best recourse to heroin addiction was the message from FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration officials, the mental health community and even former addicts who addressed an audience at Amity Regional High School last month. The group painted a bleak and sobering picture of the state’s heroin epidemic as part of the school’s community outreach program, designed to raise awareness of the nationwide trend that the over-prescribing of opiate medications by the medical community is leading to heroin addiction.
Superintendent of Schools Chip Dumais said he is often asked whether there is a drug problem at Amity. “I reply one kid on drugs is a drug problem,” he said. Despite the fact that the BOW district has had less than five deaths known to be caused by overdoses in the past few years, Dumais acknowledges Amity is not immune. Nationwide statistics estimate one in five high school seniors misuse prescription drugs at least once and 75 percent of heroin users first abused prescription pills. They later turn to heroin as a cheaper substitute of the opiate drug. The statistics are sobering; more people today are dying prematurely from drug overdoses than from accidents or gunshot wounds.
The evening kicked off with an emotional and disturbing film documentary, “Chasing the Dragon, the Life of an Opiate Addict” which featured a handful of opiate abusers and their loved ones sharing their raw, unfiltered and often disturbing stories that had few happy endings. One addict featured in the film said, “You lose control, getting high becomes a full time job and the needle is your boss. All day long you think about how you are going to get it and do it and eventually you need the drug just to feel normal and not feel sick,” he said. “It destroys everything good in you; it will suck the life out of you. You can’t be an addict and maintain a normal life.” In a footnote at the end of the film, most of the addicts featured had followed the typical path of the user – they had since died or were in jail. As one parent in the film concluded sadly, “If you want to fail and be in and out of jail, go ahead and get high. It is much stronger than you – it will win and it will affect everyone in your family for the rest of their lives.”
After the film, FBI Community Outreach Specialist/Media Coordinator and panelist Charles K. Grady said he’s seen the film at least 50 times and each time he gets more depressed. The reality of heroin use, which makes it even more insidious than other drugs, is that it can actually change the addict’s brain chemistry. “An addict’s brain says it needs the drug to breathe, and the addict can’t fight that, no one can fight their own brain,” Grady said. “This is not weed or even cocaine, it can’t be taken lightly. No one chooses to be addicted to heroin. They might have set out to get high but they wind up addicted. Prevention is the best way to fight it.” All panelists stressed that no one is immune from heroin addiction ˗ anyone can end up addicted – an Eagle Scout, an honor student, a mother, a father, an athlete, ˗ the product of a ‘good home’ with ‘good parents’.
“This epidemic is way bigger than we can put people in jail over,” Grady said. “You have the ability to make a difference. If I said ISIS is at the Post Mall you’d grab your pitchforks and run over there but if I told you a lot of pills are leaving CVS you wouldn’t do anything. It’s almost impossible to pinpoint the percentage of Amity students and residents taking opiates. We have to pay attention and pull together as a community.”
Audience members who contributed to the community discussion voiced frustration that the state has inadequate treatment facilities for addicts who are trying to recover and that there is a stigma to admitting to heroin addiction. One parent of a recovering addict said, “It’s not a well-worn path – it’s pretty damn lonely. Once a kid leaves the emergency room it is impossible to get help,” she said. A physician in the audience admitted the medical community must do its part to be more mindful of over-prescribing opiate pain medication.
Panelists and former heroin addicts Maks Danilin and Ada Martinez also added their own experiences to the discussion. “I started using prescription drugs in high school, never thinking I’d wind up using heroin. Pills didn’t seem dangerous – I got them from my parents or my friends’ parents. I never thought it would lead to me hurting the people I loved most or seeing a friend die in front of me,” Martinez said.
Danilin stressed the importance of parents’ educating themselves about the drugs and keeping an open dialog with your children. “I’d come home with bloodshot eyes and my parents thought I was ‘just smoking weed’. Parents and communities have to pull together to fight this epidemic. This room should be packed tonight,” he said. “Tell your neighbors – we need to spread the word. There’s no one solution—it takes a community.”
Grady seconded Danilin’s comments urging parents and friends to speak out if they suspect someone is using opiates. “We all have the ability to communicate. Don’t be afraid to parent. Say ‘I’m worried about your son/daughter’. If you fail to do that we’ve failed each other. It’s the only way to stop the toe tags,” he said.
Since 2012, the Orange Police Department has responded to 14 heroin-related events which resulted in one death. Victims were not necessarily Orange residents but were in Orange when the incidents occurred. Chief Robert Gagne reports that although heroin use is on the rise in Connecticut and around the country, the epidemic has yet to affect the BOW community “in a significant way”. Regardless, the department is “keeping an eye on it” and taking precautionary measures. In addition to resource officers stationed at Amity, a DARE officer affiliated with the grammar schools, and an officer in the statewide narcotic force, the department also added a trained narcotics canine, Trent, to assist in drug-related investigations. Orange officers and paramedics are equipped with Narcan™ (naloxone), a prescription medicine that blocks the effects of opioids and reverses an overdose. “We’ve done these things but we hope it doesn’t ever become a significant problem,” Gagne said.