Local counselors treating young people addicted to opiates say the problem is out of control in Western New York. In the second of a three part series on addiction, WBFO’s Cheryl Hagen talks with two experts about the deadly habit and what it takes to get clean.
“Most of the kids are going to tell you they start using at 8, 9, 10-years-old,” says Jodie Altman of Renaissance Addiction Services (RAS). “Not heroin, but maybe they start with alcohol, maybe they smoked a cigarette. They start out very innocently. They see an adult doing it so they think it is okay to do it and then it just progresses.”
Altman is the Campus Director at RAS, located on the Kids Escaping Drugs site in West Seneca. Altman says the opiate epidemic is more frightening than anything she has seen before.
“When I started, kids were drinking,” says Altman. “They were smoking marijuana. There was a little bit of cocaine, but if you ever talked to them about needles or heroin, they’d think you were out of your mind. That’s a junkie in a corner, living on a street. Now, a very healthy percentage of our kids are using heroin. I’ve never been this scared.”
Kids Escaping Drugs Executive Director Robin Clouden works with Altman on campus.
“So many of the kids, I don’t want to say all of them, but that great percentage of the kids we have here on campus, you know, maybe start off with alcohol and marijuana, which we consider to be gateway drugs and then they progress into prescription pain killers and then when that supply runs dry, because they’re very, very expensive, that’s when they’re turning to the heroin,” says Clouden. “We have three 14-year-old heroin addicts on campus now.”
Clouden notes the signs of addiction can be obvious.
“Sleep habits, friends, hygiene, school work… any of those things, if you see any kind of big differences with them, those are big indicators right there. If you’re kids are staying up half the night and sleep during the day. If they’re not showering or taking care of themselves the way that they did before. Friends are a big part of it, a different circle of friends. We like to tell parents, follow your instincts. If it doesn’t feel right to you, it’s probably not.”
Kids come to the Kids Escaping Drug campus from across upstate New York – boys and girls, from cities, suburbs and rural areas. Clouden and Altman describe these young addicts as smart, but in need of structure and rules. They also need to learn how to have fun without drugs or alcohol. The two say kids are often mandated to their program by the courts, but some do come of their own will. Clouden and Altman agree that any teen addicted to opiates needs inpatient treatment.
“There’s lots of outpatients these kids can go to but the problem is they go once a week and it’s not working with the opiate addiction. It won’t work. They go once a week for an hour and then they go back home in the environment,” notes Altman
Clouden adds, “That’s the key right there, getting the kids out of their current environment to hopefully change their thought process.”
When you talk about environment, are you talking about family life, friends, school?
“We are talking about the whole thing,” says Clouden.
Renaissance Addiction Services provides inpatient counseling, education and guidance to young addicts living on the Kids Escaping Drugs campus notes Altman.
“Putting down the alcohol and the drugs on this camps is the easiest thing to do. The hard part is the building of your life without the alcohol and drugs.”
Altman adds families are also provided support.
“These families get sick right alongside their kids. They may not be the identified person, but they get sick and they need to learn how to get better with their kids. We treat the whole family. We do family individual sessions. We do family education sessions. So that everybody gets on the same page,” notes Altman.
A normal stay is generally five to six months, but Altman says kids progress through the program at their own pace.
“Some of the kids will tell you it takes a good three months for the light bulb to go on. It takes time, not that long, but for chemicals to get out of their system, for us to figure out what we’re dealing with and for them to figure out life without it.”
The two women have concerns about the future of addiction treatment. Two thing they know for sure, they’ll never give up on a kid who needs help and they’ll never turn anyone away for financial reasons.
“We have a sliding scale that we refer to and there are some patients that are here for as little as $11.oo a day,” says Clouden. “So we do have options and we try to make it as affordable as possible to families so their kids can get the treatment that they need.”
“Not everybody gets recovery the first time, whether they be kids or adults,” says Altman. “Some people it takes two or three times and there’s no shame in that. Sometimes they need a tune up. Sometimes they weren’t real serious the first time so they only stayed a month. Everybody’s circumstances are different but we’ll never shut our doors.”
Part 1 of the series is available by clicking here. Part 3 of the series will air on WBFO's Morning Edition on Tuesday, September 22nd.