Heroin epidemic subject of conference in Chicago suburbs

April 13, 2012 3:20:28 PM PDT
Dozens of suburban communities are coming together in an effort to fight a growing problem: heroin addiction.

Help is being offered and the experienced voices of those who have battled addiction were heard at a day-long conference.

That conference was held Friday in Will County, which had 30 overdose deaths last year and is on track to nearly double that number this year. Friday's event brought together educators, doctors, law enforcement and former addicts.

"I lost friends. I lost respect. I lost a large portion of my college career," said 25-year-old Bill Patrianakos.

Patrianakos is the face of today's heroin epidemic. He was in college, studying to be a doctor, when he made the mistake of thinking he could stop using whenever he wanted.

"I was always a smart kid. And that's who's most at risk, actually, is the smart kids because they think that they can outthink it," Patrianakos said.

Now clean for two years, Patrianakos shared his story at Will County's first ever day-long conference on heroin education.

There were panel discussions, an information fair and a poignant memorial to heroin's young victims.

"We have all the evidence to prove that this is a serious epidemic. And it's an epidemic that's aimed right at our children," said John Roberts, the father of a heroin addict.

Roberts' son Billy was just 19 when he overdosed and died. He fell victim to what addicts call "chasing the dragon," attempting through higher and more frequent doses to replicate that euphoric first high.

"You'll only have that high once. You will never ever capture it again," Roberts said.

Many addicts sought out heroin after first getting hooked on prescription painkillers.

"I think, generally speaking, throughout the medical community, that the physicians that are prescribing these narcotics are being much, much more judicial in their prescribing behaviors," said addiction specialist Dr. Gawtham Gutta.

Many at Friday's conference support stiffer penalties for heroin dealers but say law enforcement solutions are just one piece of the puzzle.

"It means that the end result is not just arresting somebody and putting them in jail. It is to try and prevent them from doing it to begin with," said Larry Walsh, Will County executive.

So, the Robert Crown Center for Health Education is launching a program in the fall aimed at students as young as middle school age.

"We're talking to the youth," said Crown Center's Kathleen Burke. "We're doing the research. And we're finding out how to create a response that is going to be long term and effective."

Friday's conference was the largest of its kind ever in will County.

Some former addicts told ABC7, if these types of events were around a few years ago, perhaps they would not have started using.

A recent study found the Chicago area had the most heroin-related hospital visits in the nation.