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Nine Network hosts town hall on heroin addiction among young people

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 13, 2012 - The new face of heroin addiction in St. Louis – more suburban, more middle class and much whiter – was brought into sharp focus Monday night by a town hall sponsored by the Nine Network of Public Media and the Saint Louis Regional Health Commission.

A live audience heard stories from recovering addicts, parents who have lost children to overdoses, and treatment officials seeking to educate young people about the dangers of heroin while trying to find resources to help those already addicted.

In between the discussion, moderated by Nine Network's Jim Kirchherr, the show included a video presentation about the life of Eugene Stanton whose job and marriage went down the drain as a result of his addiction. He told of waking up each morning with the only goal of finding the more than $100 needed daily to feed his drug habit.

Stanton said he had been clean for several months, thanks to injections of the drug Vivitrol through a Salvation Army treatment program.

Even so, he cautioned that the monthly “shot is no magic wand.” He said he still needs plenty of “self-help and individual and group counseling” to fight the addiction.

Kirchherr told Stanton that many people “who haven’t been in the world you’ve been in” would never consume something if they knew it would kill them.

Stanton conceded his behavior “defies all common logic,” but said “I somehow found that risk worth taking.”  Earlier, he had explained that just as some suffer from cancer, he suffers from the “disease of addiction.”

Another panelist, Mike Morrison, an official from Bridgeway Behavioral Health,, noted that it isn’t always easy to find the resources to treat heroin addiction, especially since Vivitrol costs more than $800 a month.

“It’s expensive, but it’s so much less expensive than spending money on dope. It’s worth it, but it’s not a silver bullet.”

A second panelist, Diana Harris of the Missouri Department of Corrections, agreed that treatment was essential. She said drug treatment in a community-based setting was much cheaper than prison.

One man who identified himself as a veteran and drug addict told the audience that a six-month treatment program was far more effective than the month of treatment that many addicts receive.

But Harris of the Department of Corrections said the only solution is to catch the problem before it starts among the young. While noting that treatment is important, she said the problem doesn’t start when the prison system has to deal with addicts who are usually 30 to 40 years old at the time of incarceration.

Many of them, she said, experiment with drugs in their teens. She said young people need to get the message about the danger of heroin and other drugs before they begin experimenting with them.

Also on the panel was Tom Heard, a father who lost a son to heroin addiction.

“As a family, we didn’t speak out about our son,” he said. “It was a very small inner circle that really knew the truth. Once he passed away, my wife and I both felt strongly that it was important to talk about it because we wanted to try to help other families with similar experiences.”

Those adding their voices to the discussion ranged from adults to young people who, like the Heard family, said they decided to speak up after losing relatives or friends to heroin addiction.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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