Forum addresses heroin spike in suburbs

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Michael Astrab leads a panel discussion Feb. 20 at the Bay Village Branch Library on the fast growing heroin use in the suburbs.

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Michael Astrab has seen enough heroin cases in his courtroom to label the problem an epidemic. Rather than focus only on dealing with the aftermath of heroin use, Astrab decided to zero in on prevention by assembling a panel of experts and visiting suburban communities across the county to raise awareness and educate parents.

The forum, "Heroin in the Suburbs," stopped at the Bay Village Branch Library on Feb. 20. Panelists included consultant Dr. Stephen Sroka, assistant county prosecutors Nicole Ellis and Patrick Lavelle, Dr. Joan Papp from MetroHealth Medical Center and founder of the opioid overdose prevention program Project DAWN, Bay Village Police Chief Mark Spaetzel, recovering addict Robert Garrity, chemical dependency counselor Jennifer Tulli, Robby's Voice founder Rob Brandt, and Judge Michael Astrab.

The library's meeting room was filled to standing room only, highlighting the importance of this issue to parents and residents of our community. Panelists were offered the opportunity to extend their message to those unable to attend in this special Observer feature.

Following are their comments:

Judge Michael Astrab
Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas

Over the past 18 months my staff and I noticed a large uptick in cases involving heroin and prescription opiates. These cases included not only the traditional trafficking and possession matters, but also thefts, robberies, burglaries, “scrapping” charges, fraud and assorted other offenses all related to the efforts of individuals to secure funding for their habits.

We also noted a very large increase in the number of heroin/opiate overdose deaths, with a large number (almost half) coming from suburban communities not normally noted for being high-risk drug areas.

We decided to start a series of “Heroin in the Suburbs” forums in an effort to educate and inform the public about the dangers of heroin and opiate drug use in these communities. Being involved in the justice system I see the scope of the problem. The average citizen of Cuyahoga County, however, may not be aware of just how pervasive this problem is and that is the driving force behind our initiative.

We assembled a panel of experts to discuss the problem and address audience concerns, and have drawn large crowds to each forum.

Rob Brandt
Lost a son and brother to addiction and is founder of Robby’s Voice, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to save lives by raising awareness about drug addiction.

As parents, we need to know the world has changed and continues to change faster than ever before for our kids; we need to adapt. We need to set the example at home, our kids see our behavior. 

We need to take the opportunity to talk to our kids about proper use of medication and the impact of drugs. We need to be really aware of who our kids hang out with, who their friends’ brothers, sisters and parents are, and where they are going. We need to be aware of the signs and terms in this new age of digital communication because the threat is real and the toll is devastatingly permanent.

Kids will inevitably make kids’ decisions. We as parents need to ensure that they have as much good information in their heads to offset all the wrong information and influences they absorb.

It was encouraging to see so many people at the forum. It was encouraging to see the level of engagement on everyone’s face. Now I challenge each of us to do our part to break the silence, to spread the message, to make a difference. 

My wife and I face each and every day in a world that doesn’t make sense, it is just incomplete. What will you do to ensure that your family doesn’t live each day wondering what you could have done?

Jennifer Tulli
Social worker and licensed chemical dependency counselor at Recovery Resources, a nonprofit behavioral health organization that helps people triumph over mental illness, alcoholism, drug and other addictions.

Kids are like sponges and they absorb verbal and non-verbal messages all the time so parents need to be aware of their actions and words when interacting with their kids. 

For example, if you host parties at your house do you have an ample amount of alcohol? Are the kids ushered into another part of the house but can still hear the adults laughing and having a good time?

Think about the messages kids could be hearing: “Being an adult and drinking alcohol is fun! Having a party with friends equals drinking and fun! I can’t wait to drink!”

I am not suggesting that adults can’t have parties and have a few drinks, but we need to be conscious of the effects they may have on kids if done on a regular basis and with alcohol being the focus. An alternative would be to include the kids in the party and monitor your alcohol intake. Emphasize that the best part about parties is getting together with friends. Say things like, “I can’t wait to see everyone” and “There will be so much fun food to eat” so kids start to equate adult fun with things other than alcohol.

Next, consider what you do when you have a headache. Do you immediately, and openly, reach for pills to ease the pain possibly suggesting to your child that taking pills is the only way to alleviate pain? Remember, even if this is not what you mean, kids can, and do, interpret things differently than adults. 

Instead, stress other things that you will try in order to get rid of your headache like laying down on the couch or retreating to your bedroom for a bit. If you need to take medicine for the pain, do it privately so your child is not aware of it.

And finally, use opportunities to talk to your kids about medications. We know that heroin is not usually the first drug kids use and that they often start with prescription pills thinking that they aren’t dangerous because they are prescribed by a doctor. So if your child needs to take medication, before giving it to him/her, explain that they must take it only when you give it to them and that they may only take the amount you give them or else they can get sick. 

Robert Garrity
Recovering heroin addict, defense attorney, licensed drug counselor, licensed social worker

I am a recovering heroin addict who started my opioid addiction with pills when working as a pharmacist. I somehow survived, through today, and have been able to share my experience and give others hope. I do this as a criminal defense attorney, licensed drug counselor, licensed social worker, but mostly as an ordinary addict with 13 years clean and sober. 

These years did not come easily. It started with seven failed treatment episodes, and one trip to prison. I must be vigilant in treating this disease on a daily basis – part of which is done by helping others. 

This disease knows no boundaries. It hides in the silence of families who are too embarrassed to talk about it. It is misunderstood, and still seen by most as a moral failing. It is a mental health disorder in which the sufferer, once he/she is off the substance, feels better, and then their brain says it is all right to try it again. 

The problem is, once we start, we don’t stop until we have used up everyone and everything in our path. We don’t care who we hurt when we are using. We have blinders on, and the only goal is to feel better.

This disease is complex. We need to understand why people feel so dissatisfied, depressed, fearful, that they decide to pick up the drug in the first place. We need to have available treatment on demand when someone reaches for help. We need to come out of the shadows as addicts in recovery, families of addicts, and speak about this horrendous epidemic.

Dr. Stephen Sroka
Adjunct assistant professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and president of Health Education Consultants. He consults about sex, drugs and violence prevention education around the world.

7 Take-Away Messages
1. Denial is huge. Saying, “Not my kid or my community” is wearing blinders. This can happen to anyone.
2. Be prepared, not scared. Have a plan for action.
3. This is a complex issue. We cannot arrest our way out of the heroin/opioid addiction problem. We need education, prevention and treatment.
4. There is no one best way to address prevention and education. Fears and facts are not enough. Storytelling often effects change.
5. Education messages need to address the four C’s: communication, collaboration, culture and caring. You can’t give a wake-up call in a foreign language.
6. Mental health issues must be addressed. Drug use is often associated with mental health concerns. Schools need mental health professionals, school psychologists, nurses, counselors, social workers and resource officers including DARE.
7. Every kid needs the 3 F’s. A family that loves him/her, even if it isn’t biological; friends who will pull him/her up, not down; and faith, a moral compass, a sense of right and wrong.

5-Part Message for Heroin and Opioid Awareness and Prevention
1. Don’t start.
2. If you do, get help as soon as you can.
3. You don’t do heroin, heroin does you.
4. Heroin is the best feeling you will ever have, until you don’t have it, and then it is the worst feeing you will ever have.
5. Don’t start.

3 Ways You Can Make a Difference
1. Learn all you can.
2. Help one another (helping others is the best way to help yourself).
3. Tell your loved ones today that you love them. No guarantees about tomorrow.

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Volume 6, Issue 5, Posted 10:47 AM, 03.04.2014