CLARENDON HILLS – Robert Crown Center health educator Rose Tenuta vividly remembers when a granparent attended one of her drug prevention classes that was intended for middle-schoolers.
“[About two years ago] after the program, the guy came to our CEO and said, ‘Why aren’t you talking about heroin?’” Tenuta said. “And we were all like, ‘This is 4-6 grade,’ and he said, ‘I know, why aren’t you talking about heroin?’ ”
Following a discussion with the man, the presenters learned his son recently died of heroin overdoes at age 24 after first experimenting with the drug in junior high.
That eye-opening conversation ultimately altered the Robert Crown Center’s approach, presentations and lession plans for junior high and middle school students.
On April 16, Tenuta spoke to a group of parents at Clarendon Hills Middle School about the heroin prevention program at the Robert Crown Center, which provided scientific as well as social emotional learning content to understand the risk of drug use, including prescription pain medicine, opioids and heroin.
“Once, we started doing the research we started realizing just how big a problem it was,” Tenuta said.
Heroin has been described as an epidemic in the Chicago suburbs by local police departments, who have even coined Interstate 290 as the “heroin highway.”
One of the more shocking statistics presented by Tenuta looked at heroin-related emergency room admissions by city. While New York had about 12,000 cases in 2011, Chicago had about 24,000.
“Think about how much bigger New York is than us, and we have twice the number of heroin admissions,” she said. “We have a bigger problem here in Illinois than they do in a lot of major cities.”
As the data suggests, teaching young children about drugs is now more important than ever because using drugs at a young age is becoming more frequent, according to Tenuta. She added when it comes to opioids, which include painkillers, kids don’t fear it because it’s common and sometimes prescribed by a doctor.
In fact, 35 percent of grammar school kids believe painkillers are safer than illegal drugs.
But before age 15, 60 percent of kids abuse prescription painkillers – 45 percent of which developed an addiction and four out of five heroin users started with prescription drugs, Tenuta said.
Tenuta said prescription drugs can be a gateway to heroin because pills are “really expensive,” while heroin is cheaper and easier to find.
“With heroin, [users] can buy a baggie for $10, and it will last for several hits,” she said. “Some of the people we’ve talked to say buying heroin is like going to the drive-thru at McDonald’s.”