Overdose Awareness Day: Acknowledging the crisis among us
By Denise Crosby email@example.com August 30, 2012 10:30PM
Jonathan Humphreys (center) and Chris Merkes (right) check in on Facebook on their phones as they and Peter Rundo prepare to head to Roosevelt University to take part in a candlelight vigil and be recognized for their work creating the organization Open Hearts/Open Minds on Thursday, August 30, 2012. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media
To review the new report on the rise of heroin use among young whites, done by the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University, visit http://www.roosevelt.edu/~/media/Files/pdfs/CAS/ICDP/HeroinUse-Aug2012.ashx.
Updated: October 1, 2012 5:45PM
So, did you know this is the state’s first official Overdose Awareness Day?
And the bigger question: Do you care?
For those who answered no to at least one of the above, here’s something to chew on: Accidental drug overdoses caused more deaths in Illinois — and across the nation — than traffic fatalities.
We’ve got those eye popping numbers because an awful lot of time and money has been spent researching this issue, including a new report released Thursday by the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University that continues to show an increase in heroin use, especially among young people.
At 8 p.m. on Tuesday, yet another victim was found dead from what Aurora police suspect is a heroin overdose. The young man, discovered by a family member in the bedroom, was only 21 years old.
That Illinois has officially recognized Overdose Awareness Day, which began in Australia in 2005, is significant. It shows that education, especially about the heroin problem in all our backyards, has begun to pick up momentum. That’s thanks, in large part, to families of victims who realize the only way to combat this scourge is to use their own tragedies to beat back the stigma that keeps many from seeking help.
If you’ve been following the stories over the years, some names may be familiar — like Brenda Hruby Giesel, who became a leading crusader in the fight after her 24-year-old nephew Reed died of an overdose in 2008. Or Karen Hanneman, who reluctantly put her name and face on the issue after losing her 21-year-old son Justin 18 months ago. She successfully lobbied for the passage of the Emergency Medical Services Act, and has been a fierce advocate for prevention and awareness, especially in the Neuqua Valley High School community, where her son was a graduate and which has been at the epicenter of this battle.
Both Naperville women were presented with the Saving Lives Courage Award at Thursday evening’s Candlelight Vigil at Roosevelt University in Schaumburg. The event kicked off today’s Overdose Awareness Day by bringing together 17 suburban groups who advocate for lifesaving solutions.
Also honored were survivors whose grief was still painfully fresh.
It was just over a month ago that Caroline Kacena unsuccessfully performed CPR on her son John, a 2010 Neuqua graduate, after finding him in the bedroom of their Naperville home. Days after his death, she publicly announced she was turning her grief into advocacy, vowing to put behind the shame she felt over her son’s struggles with addiction by throwing herself into community involvement.
Also receiving awards Thursday evening were John Kacena’s Neuqua High classmates, Jonathan Humphreys and Chris Merkes, who co-founded Open Hearts, Open Eyes after his death.
Humphreys and Merkes were deeply concerned about the heroin problem in their hometown, but it was the loss of their middle school friend that forced them into action. Last year the drug killed six young people from Naperville. Kacena was the second teen to die this year. Megan Miller lost her life in January, and another five overdosed but survived.
“Kids were hurting and they didn’t know what to do,” said Humphreys, who is currently working at Jewel but plans to return to school to pursue a degree in business management or counseling.
The Facebook page, he said, is a grassroots way to spread awareness and support among young people. Humphreys said some use it to voice their opinions, some share their struggles or triumphs with addiction, while others are asking for help.
So far, the page has more than 5,100 friends, and these two founders hope to eventually turn the social network support system into a not for profit to raise funds for young people seeking counseling or rehab.
“Kids listen to other kids,” said Humphreys. “We want them to know we are here to help, not to judge.”
Also honored at the vigil was a Kane County mom responsible for the state’s involvement. Terri Dudar of Carpentersville contacted Gov. Pat Quinn in the spring to request that Aug. 31 be declared Overdose Awareness Day in Illinois. A few weeks later she not only got that approval, but a signed proclamation.
Dudar didn’t start out as an advocate. Like Kacena, she found her son dead in his bedroom when she went to awake him for work. Dudar organized a small rally last fall. But it wasn’t until this year “I really began screaming,” she says of her determination to educate others so they would not have to go through her hell on earth.
Social media has helped spread the word, Dudar said. But she and others also believe there is slowly becoming a sea change in attitude about this drug. Heroin addiction is not something to be ashamed of. “It’s not a moral or character issue,” insisted Kathleen Kane-Willis, co-author of the new report out of Roosevelt University. Rather it is a health issue that must be attacked vigorously and at many levels in order to save lives.
“The youth heroin rates keep increasing by all measures,” said Kane-Willis. “It’s a real crisis in Illinois and across the nation.”