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Countering the Heroin Youth Epidemic

Last month Meridian HealthCare and the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County sponsored the first in what will be an ongoing series of educational talks with a local spin. The topic for the debut installment of the “Now You Know” series was a timely one: “Why Young People Are Turning to Heroin.”

The presenter was Nikunj Patel, a Master-level Counselor in the Youth and Young Adult Program at Meridian. As someone who has worked extensively with young people battling addiction and has been involved in Meridian’s prevention programing in local schools, Mr. Patel has both the knowledge and expertise to speak on this topic.

He began by tracing the evolution of drug use over the past several decades, from marijuana and psychedelics of the 60s through cocaine, crack and methamphetamines in the 80s/90s and club drugs such as ecstasy in the 2000s.

The most notable development of the previous decade was the rise of opioids. Although opioids are intended to treat pain, individuals began to abuse these drugs to obtain a high. Unlike other drugs, opiates were viewed as more acceptable because they were available by prescription and not seen as dangerous, like street drugs. However, as the price of these drugs increased, young abusers looked to heroin as a cheaper alternative.

Heroin can produce an intense euphoria and offers an escape for young people who may experience social anxiety or want to numb themselves from pressures to perform academically, problems they’re dealing with personally, or stressors at home. Another reason teens turn to heroin is curiosity and exposure. While we constantly try to impress upon our kids the negative effects of drugs, when they see a classmate, friend or family member who uses drugs but continues to be successful in life or school — then naturally, our kids begin to question if there really are these negative effects.

As with many addictive drugs, frequent use of opioids and heroin can lead to dependence and a greater tolerance — meaning stronger doses are needed to achieve the same result. Even those who are able to achieve recovery for a time may relapse and suffer an overdose when attempting to use the same amount of the substance as before. This happens because the body no longer has a high tolerance for the drug, and using the same amount could be an overload to the system.

Throughout his presentation, Mr. Patel noted a number of community resources youth and their families can turn to for help with addiction — including support groups like Narcotics Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Al-Anon for families; detox centers; and treatment agencies that offer individual and group counseling, mental health treatment, residential treatment, medication assisted treatment, or other medical options. Meridian HealthCare is one of several agencies that offer a full range of treatment programs — including Educational Groups, Intensive Outpatient Treatment and Relapse Prevention/Aftercare.

Finally, the ultimate success in treating heroin addiction among young people lies in Prevention — that is, ensuring that they never begin using drugs in the first place. Studies show that a teen who reaches age 21 without smoking, drinking or using other drugs is virtually certain never to do so [CASA]. Research also shows that for every $1 spent on drug abuse prevention, communities can save $4–$5 in costs for drug abuse treatment and counseling [CSAP].

To that end, Meridian continues to work with local middle and high schools to provide the PANDA Leaders Club, a prevention program for students, along with sponsoring the Families Who Know program, which helps provide parents and families with other important resources.