The heroin epidemic in the United States is very real. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heroin use has more than doubled in the last decade among Americans aged 18-25. Even worse, deaths related to the drug have more than quadrupled since 2010. A part of the country’s ongoing opioid crisis, heroin addiction often stems from painkiller dependence; because it’s significantly cheaper to buy and doesn’t require doctor shopping, many addicts transition from prescription drugs to heroin.
Whether or not you’ve ever seen the devastation of heroin addiction up close, the heartbreaking statistics leave many feeling compelled to take action. This guide will help you become an activist to fight back against the opioid epidemic both in your community and on a personal level. Any time you can devote to the cause is worthwhile, so take charge and get involved!
Fighting Back: In Your Community
The first step to community activism is finding out exactly what your city or state is up against. If you can’t find concrete information online, reaching out to your local police department can be an excellent way to get insight. Check their website for email contacts and be prepared that it may take some time to hear back. Visiting the department in person might be a simpler route: there will likely be pamphlets on the subject readily available, and if it’s near city hall, you can stop by to see what literature is offered there.
Inquire about the specific areas or neighborhoods that see the most heroin use so you’ll know where to concentrate your efforts and make the most impact. You may be surprised to learn where the drug is most prevalent — there has been a dramatic rise in use among suburban families across the country. Addiction doesn’t discriminate, so it’s important to give voices to all who are affected and help people find the resources they need to seek treatment.
A crucial element of tackling the heroin problem is changing the dialogue. Addiction is still widely misunderstood and often viewed as a matter of choice. This in turn vilifies addicts, and while substance abusers can’t be freed of all blame, it’s important to consider that these things don’t “just happen.” Some addicts suffer from co-occurring mental health disorders that make their situations even more complicated. Some started off using a prescribed medication as directed and still became addicted. Others still were born with a genetic disposition for addiction. There are all kinds of different circumstances that can lead a person into the depths of substance abuse, but in the end, they are still a person. The human element of addiction can get lost in portrayals of drugs and alcohol that Americans see in pop culture, making it even more difficult for people to connect to anti-drug efforts. Your job is to give them a more accurate picture of the situation: the fact is, their neighbors are in trouble and need help.
Being proactive about changing the narrative around heroin abuse can start as small as discussing it with friends and family. Don’t lecture, but instead share the discoveries you’ve made about the subject. What surprised you? Have you noticed any discrepancies between what you learned about drug abuse growing up? Keep the conversation a dialogue, asking for thoughts and listening to others. The goal isn’t to change everyone’s mind in a single discussion, but to share the facts and offer others a chance to see a new perspective. If your loved ones walk away reflecting on the subject, it’s a success.
Investigate local heroin possession laws, including the kinds of options offered to those convicted of drug charges. Some states offer drug rehabilitation in lieu of jail time, especially for first-time offenses. A few states even have programs that allow addicts to go to the police station for help seeking treatment: they can turn in any leftover drugs or paraphernalia, and are then matched with a counselor who will help them find affordable rehabilitation immediately. Get well-versed with the kinds of programs available in your area, and distribute literature to places like community centers, youth outreach centers, homeless shelters, soup kitchens, town halls, and libraries, as well as any other businesses who grant you permission.
Be sure to find out where your area stands in regards to the distribution of Naloxone. This life-saving drug can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, and is becoming more widely available to those without a doctor’s prescription. Some police departments and hospitals even offer training in dispensing the drug safely, providing a small supply of it to trainees after the lesson.
If you see a clear opportunity for more effective drug law-making in your area, start reaching out to local representatives: city council, the mayor’s office, state congress, and the governor’s office are all great places to start. Find out about town halls, grab a group of concerned citizens to back you up, and then go speak out on behalf of your community. Urge leaders to make the heroin crisis a priority, and offer possible solutions if you have them. Bring and distribute copies of any relevant literature, be it a proposal for a new city-sponsored rehabilitation program or descriptions of programs elsewhere that could be used as a model.
If you want a more personalized form of community activism, consider volunteering at a drug rehabilitation center, homeless shelter, detox center, hospital, soup kitchen, or youth center. Speak with organization leaders about your goals in fighting back against the heroin crisis, and find out if there’s a specialized role you can play. It could be as simple as offering confidential “office hours” several times a week where anyone in need can some speak to you. If they are interested in seeking treatment, you can help them work through the proper channels, but first make sure you simply give them a safe space to open up and be honest. Showing compassion and understanding is a wonderful way to reach out to those struggling with a heroin addiction. If they know you truly care about their well-being, they will be more likely to let you help.
Keep in mind that if you do engage in this kind of personal activism, it’s a good idea to keep Naloxone on-hand. Find out if you’re able to have access to it in your area, or if there are steps you need to take ahead of time. You can even act as the liaison between a hospital or pharmaceutical representative and a qualified member of the organization you’re working with who could be in charge of administering the drug. Sometimes, saving others the extra step makes a major difference.
Community activism is certainly a time-consuming commitment, but every little bit counts. Donate the time you can in the evenings, on weekends, or any other chance you get. Bring along friends and family, and share your efforts on social media to spread the word and encourage others to get involved.
Fighting Back: In Your Family
For many, the fight against heroin has a more personal tie. Watching a loved one battle a heroin addiction leaves a person feeling completely powerless. Though you certainly can’t be expected to convince your friend or family member to seek rehabilitation all on your own, there are ways you can show your support for their health without enabling their addiction.
First, your loved one must know that you believe they have a heroin addiction. Sit them down for a private, uninterrupted conversation. Start by letting them know that you love them and want them to be happy. Tell them you’ve noticed a change since they’ve begun abusing drugs or alcohol, and provide specific instances to support your assertion. It might be changes in behavior, appearance, school or job performance, or even attitude. Be careful that your concern doesn’t feel like a lecture or judgment — emphasize that you’re genuinely worried and want to help.
If your loved one isn’t receptive to the idea of heroin addiction treatment, don’t spend all your time attempting to convince or force them to go. The only way for someone to achieve lasting sobriety is if they want it for themselves. Address the issue again in the future, and make sure they know the door is always open to come speak to you about it in the meantime. Allow them time to sit with the idea and think it over, and do follow-up when you see an opportunity.
Depending on your exact situation, interactions with your addicted loved one may vary. Some friends and family choose to cut ties altogether until the person seeks help. While this is a decision that may be right for some, it’s important to consider that ultimatums may not be enough to convince an addict they need help — especially if you don’t stick to your word. If you do opt to end communication, remain steadfast in your decision to avoid sending mixed signals.
If you choose to stay in your addicted loved one’s life, you must avoid enabling their heroin abuse. Do not ever give them money or gift cards, since these can easily be traded for drugs. If the physical effects of heroin are taking their toll and you feel compelled to help in some way, bring a bag of healthy groceries. Don’t make it a regular habit, even if their diet is a recurring issue. It’s tough to watch, but an addicted person must truly feel the consequences of their actions in order to realize their life is in danger.
Bring up the subject of treatment again when you stop by with groceries, see them at a family function, or bump into them out in the world. Of course, it’s important to be discreet and respect their privacy, but showing vigilance is key. Offer to help them search for a suitable treatment center, talk to a drug counselor, or talk to their family about seeking help. Always end the conversation by letting them know you love them, support them, and are ready to help whenever they are ready.
America’s heroin crisis doesn’t have to be the future, but we must take action in the present. Get active within your family, church, school, and overall community, and fight back against this devastating epidemic.