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Event focused on documentary sheds light again on heroin problem

Detective Shaun Ferguson of the Naperville Police Department discusses the dangers of heroin abuse before a packed auditorium at Neuqua Valley High School. Ferguson said the heroin event in Naperville Monday night was an important way to discuss again the area's drug problem. |  Sun-Times Media file
Detective Shaun Ferguson of the Naperville Police Department discusses the dangers of heroin abuse before a packed auditorium at Neuqua Valley High School. Ferguson said the heroin event in Naperville Monday night was an important way to discuss again the area's drug problem. | Sun-Times Media file

It’s been over two years since I last saw the documentary, “Neuqua on Drugs.”

Funny, how there were parts I had forgotten.

Not so funny — the emotions I felt again as I listened to young local addicts talk in raw and revealing language about heroin’s powerful hold on their lives and so many of their friends and classmates.

This documentary, produced by two Neuqua Valley High School students after the overdose deaths of three classmates, created quite a stir when it was initially released in 2012 to a packed audience at the Naperville Public Library on 95th Street.

Since then, it’s been featured through other high-profile venues, including a WBEZ series on heroin that was broadcast last winter.

It was shown again Monday night in Wentz Concert Hall to students at North Central College in downtown Naperville, sponsored by the school’s Sociology and Anthropology Club.

“We wanted to do something current and in our backyards,” said treasurer Brian Failing.

What was also ironic is that Naperville Police Officer Shaun Ferguson, who took part in a panel discussion with me and NCC Associate Professor of Psychology Nicole Rivera, had never seen the controversial documentary until that evening.

Ironic because Ferguson has been at the forefront of the local battle against heroin, doing more than his share of arrests, stakeouts and community presentations over the last several years.

So much so that anecdotes, facts and figures spill from him at a rapid-fire speed.

‘Getting worse’

It’s obvious his passion for this issue remains as intense as when we first spoke more than two years ago as the face of heroin gradually revealed itself in Naperville and across the Fox Valley.

“The problem is getting worse,” he told me as we waited for students to file in to the auditorium. More dealers are in the community, he explained. And they aren’t the usual seedy suspects we associate with the West Side of Chicago.

Those now peddling the deadly opiates are our community’s young people — the kid who used to be in Boy Scouts with your own son; the girl who once sang in the school choir; now full-blown addicts trying to feed the demons that overtook their lives before they really got a chance to live those lives.

It’s painfully obvious, he added, that we aren’t going to arrest ourselves out of this problem.

Ferguson, in the trenches and on the community stages, has an impressive handle on this issue. That includes the role the older generation has played in its growing dependency on legal narcotics. As a society, he warned, if we don’t get a handle on it soon, we will be sacrificing a whole generation of young people.

Including, no doubt, some who sat in the audience on Monday.

Who knows why these students gave up part of their night to see this documentary. Some — many were education and sociology majors — came seeking knowledge. Others came out of curiosity. Others showed up because they got some class credit.

Whatever their reasons, they listened intently. And it showed when it came time for the panel discussion.

One young man wanted to know why so many of the addicts in the video declared rehab only taught them more about drugs.

Another asked how specifically to respond when there are suspicions of heroin abuse.

A female student, who lost a classmate from her small hometown to an overdose, wondered why some communities “aren’t doing more.”

Another young woman, from a suburb to the east, demanded to know why she was only now being exposed to this powerful documentary.

All good questions. All need to be part of an ongoing dialogue, with young and old alike, to keep this issue at the forefront.

I have spoken to a whole lot of people who care deeply about this issue since “Neuqua on Drugs” premiered. Another sad irony: Parents of addicts wanted little to do with press exposure back then.

But the stigma and shame are gradually being replaced by desperation and anger. Earlier this month, after we ran a story about heroin in our backyards, I heard from even more of those mothers, fathers, siblings — even a grandmother who discovered her grandson dead in her home.

Two years ago, when this documentary first aired, most of them had no idea there was even a problem.

Ferguson told me “I’d never been invited before” to see the documentary. Watching it, even after all he’s seen and done, affected him deeply, he admitted.

More people now die from drug overdoses, he reminded his young audience, than any other kind of injury, including car accidents.

Another sobering stat: Enough prescription meds are now handed out to sedate half the population of the United States for an entire month.

As bad as it continues to get, he warned, “It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

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