The New Face of Heroin

Thursday, June 10th, 2010

Imagine this: Your teenage daughter is, by all accounts, a good kid. She maintains a 3.6 grade point average. She’s a member of the student council and plays on the softball team. You squabble over her messy room and her texting at the dinner table, but you know this is normal. You’re not entirely sure about her new group of friends, but you don’t let yourself worry too much. She’s never been in trouble. Then, one day, you notice track marks on her arm. Not my kid, you think. It’s impossible.

But unfortunately, it isn’t.  Over the past few years, we as treatment professionals have heard this scenario all too often. At Phoenix House, we’ve seen a sharp rise in adolescent heroin use. Three years ago, we treated teens who primarily used pot, alcohol, PCP, or Ecstasy; almost none were addicted to heroin. Today, heroin is the drug of choice for 50 percent of our young clients, many who are just 13 to 15 years old. 

This is evidence of a troubling trend across the nation.  Although heroin use in general has declined or leveled off in many areas, the rate of heroin use among teens has increased dramatically—especially in the suburbs.  And they’re not the kids you’d expect.  They’re kids like Natalie Ciappa of Long Island, an honor student, cheerleader, and star of school plays. In 2008, days before graduation, her parents found her dead from a heroin overdose. That year, Natalie was one of 46 people in Nassau County to die as a result of heroin use, a 75 percent increase from the year before.

What’s scary is that often, the progression to heroin takes place over a short period, sometimes as little as six months.  Kids typically start with pills they find in their parents’ medicine cabinets. Some participate in “pharm parties,” where each person tosses prescription drugs they’ve found into a bowl and party-goers help themselves.  Some begin “doctor-shopping” or buying drugs online. At some point, teens realize that it’s easier, cheaper, and faster to get a $5- to $10-bag of heroin than $40 to $75 Oxycodone.  Many start by snorting heroin and then, chasing a more intense high, they begin injecting.

This short window makes it difficult to recognize the problem before it becomes a life-changing addiction. And kids who are hooked on heroin don’t always look or act the way you’d think a drug-addicted teen would. It’s not uncommon for teens to continue doing well in school and keep up with extra-curricular activities. That’s why—even for the most involved, responsible parent—a child’s addiction may not be apparent until the tell-tale track marks appear.

When this happens, parents must recognize two hard-to-swallow truths about their teen’s substance abuse: They didn’t cause it and they can’t cure it.  What they can do is to support their child’s recovery in every way possible—starting with getting them into a comprehensive treatment program.  Sadly, this isn’t always easy.  In many cases, families must pay out of pocket or the teen must be involved with the criminal justice system in order to receive treatment.  This has led some parents—like Kelly B. whose son Kevin is now in treatment at our Long Island Academy and who recently appeared on Geraldo At Large —to turn their kids over to the authorities in order to get them help.

While we can’t fix the system, we can ensure that the kids we treat get the care they need while they’re with us.  Our adolescent programs, which offer educational services, collaborative services with criminal justice, and provide support to families and siblings, are not fully covered by government grants.  On Long Island, an area that has been hard-hit by the heroin epidemic, a considerable portion of our operating costs is covered by individual donations. That’s why, each year, we host our summer party—to honor these kids and their recovery and to raise funds so that our programs can continue to help them get their lives back on track.  I hope you’ll join us in supporting these young people who deserve a second chance.

Deni Carise, Ph.D.
Chief Clinical Officer, Phoenix House
Adjunct Clinical Professor, University of Pennsylvania
Senior Scientist, Treatment Research Institute 

**Click here to learn more about our summer party in the Hamptons on June 26, benefiting our Long Island programs.

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  • Naomi

    I believe my daughter is living in the streets of Albuquerque NM. I’ve been told that she is addicted to heroin. She is 39 years old and has a daughter who just turned 15. Her daughter was taken by CYFD and placed in foster care with a man who isn’t even her father. I worry about both my daughter and granddaughter constantly. I do not live in the same town as they do. CYFD will not give us information about my granddaughter and I do not have contact with my daughter. She lied to us for two years, always making excuses when I’d call and want to talk to my granddaughter. Finally years later the truth came out. My daughter is also an alcoholic. She is very very abusive towards me, my husband, her sister and nieces. She has been known to use drugs referred to as speed balling. She runs from us because she know we will question her and try to get her into treatment. She has been to treatment centers for alcoholism only to return to the same thing. I am afraid for her life and do not know what to do. I not only fear for her life but also for the rest of us because of her abusive tendencies. I have tried using the court system to get help for her. Police Officers have told me they know of her and that yes she is very violent, that they have taken her into the hospitals for a phyc. Evaluation, but that as soon as the drugs wear off she is set free into the streets again. I was told by an Officer of APD that officers refer to her as being crazy. She is my step child and has lied many times trying to get us into trouble with the law. I still love her and my heart aches knowing the trouble and danger she is in. I often wonder if I did something wrong or what caused her to choose this path. She was always a very smart and beautiful girl who had a lot going for her. I need help and do not know where to turn anymore. Please help if you can.

  • ljohnson

    Naomi, we are so sorry to hear of your daughter’s struggle with addiction. We will keep your family in our thoughts. Please know that addiction is a disease that impacts people of all walks of life, and is not a result of anything you did. If you would like to speak with someone from Phoenix House, please call 1 888 671 9392. –Liana Johnson, Phoenix House