Health officials in Northeast Ohio are calling the levels of heroin use an epidemic, and statistics show that young people in both cities and suburbs are at risk. Would you know if your child was an addict?
Rob Brandt wistfully recalled his son’s outgoing personality, infectious smile and the way he joked around at home with his two younger siblings. Mixed with the joy of those memories is the painful story of Robby’s drug problem — a heroin addiction so powerful it claimed his life at the young age of 20.
“Neither of us (Brandt and his wife) would ever have believed that something like this would ever enter our world,” Brandt explained. “We had the drug talk with our kids early and often.”
For the Brandt family, their difficult journey began when then high school sophomore Robby was given prescription painkillers after having his wisdom teeth removed. The Brandts would later learn this was the start of his abuse with prescription pain medication.
After graduating from high school in Olmsted Falls in 2010, Robby kicked his drug habit and joined the Ohio National Guard. However, when he came home several months later, a friend introduced him to heroin. His family quickly noticed a change in his personality.
“We sat him down and he admitted he had a problem,” Brandt said. “For him, it was a relief. He didn’t have to deal with it alone anymore. He was more than willing to go down the road of getting help.”
After an eight-week outpatient program, Robby was back to his old self.
“It worked and he had his life back,” Brandt recalled. However, a few months later, Robby relapsed. This time, he sought inpatient treatment, and was doing well once again. Days before he was set to deploy to Afghanistan, Robby left home one afternoon and didn’t return. Police discovered Robby’s body inside his car in a restaurant parking lot.
“Robby made four calls that day,” Brandt said. “He called his sponsor and got a voicemail … he called a friend and got a voicemail … he called another friend and got voicemail and then he called the drug dealer.”
The Numbers Tell the Story
The Brandt family is not alone in their struggle. Statistics show the number of people using heroin is rising, both nationally and in Northeast Ohio.
The problem is everywhere, in every county — and the number of people dying from heroin overdose has increased. In fact, the latest figures by the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office show 195 heroin-related deaths in 2013. In contrast, 40 people died from heroin in 2007 in the Cleveland area. There were 49 deaths attributed to heroin in 2013 in Summit County, which is an increase from previous years.
Many Northeast Ohio, county and state agencies are creating programs to fight the rampant heroin problem. In Lake and Geauga counties, an Opiate Task Force has been formed and recently, the Akron Police Department created a new unit to crack down on heroin dealers.
Dr. Jason Jerry, an addiction specialist with The Cleveland Clinic Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center, says the greatest rise in heroin use is among ages 18-25.
“I think what is so surprising to many is that I’ve seen all-American kids who nobody would ever guess had a problem,” Jerry says. “They look clean cut, so I think it is rather scary that these kids fly under the radar. We think because their grades are decent and they are involved in extracurricular activities, that they are fine. We don’t think there is any way they have a problem.”
The pathway from prescription drugs to a heroin addiction that claimed the life of Robby Brandt is not uncommon. Jerry explains young people commonly start off with an addiction to prescription painkillers before discovering a cheaper way to get high. However, the battle begins once someone tries heroin. Even after treatment, there is always the risk of relapse.
According to Jerry, only 10 to 20 percent of those who seek treatment for a heroin addiction stay clean for the long haul. “The numbers show 99 adolescents per day try heroin for the first time.”
The best advice for parents is to become educated on the subject, have open discussions with their children about the dangers of heroin and stay vigilant.
“There’s not a ‘one size fits all’ for how to talk to your child,” Jerry says. “Sit down with them, be non-confrontational and be aware of raising concerns. Say that you’ve observed ‘some things have changed’ and explain what you’ve noticed.”
Addiction warning signs include:
• Changes in school performance;
• Abrupt changes in behavior, such as irritability and being secretive;
• Becoming increasingly isolated;
• Changes in friends and peer groups;
• Missing money;
• Changes in sleep patterns, such as going to bed very late or sleeping all day;
• Pinpoint pupils;
• Abrupt weight loss; and
• Withdrawal symptoms.
Jerry says, “There are effective treatments, but the real key is to never start down path. It is a long road.”
Private Schools in Northeast Ohio To Begin Drug Testing
Three Catholic schools in Northeast Ohio — Gilmour Academy, St. Edward High School and Saint Ignatius High School — recently announced an initiative for the next school year aimed at keeping students substance-free. The schools have hired a Boston firm to conduct periodic drug assessments of students, using a non-invasive hair-sampling procedure. Hair analysis can detect drug use for several months after ingestion.
According to school officials, the testing is designed as a prevention and intervention strategy, not a punitive program. Parents of any students identified as “at risk” will be notified, and options such as counseling, will be addressed.
The purpose of the initiative is give students another reason to say “no” to the pressures of using drugs, which will save them from long-term problems related to abuse and addiction.
Robby’s Voice (started by the Brandt family): robbysvoice.com
ADAMHS Board of Cuyahoga County: adamhscc.org, 216-623-6888
New Directions: newdirect.org, 216-591-0324
Recovery Resources: recres.org, 216-431-4131
Lake-Geauga Recovery Centers: lgrc.us, 440-285-9119