Why are Maryland teens turning to heroin?

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Addiction warning signs

Wildason witnessed her son change after he started using.

"He was not taking an interest in things that normally interested him," she says.

The typically chatty teen became isolated, his grades slipped to C's and D's, and he began stealing from his brothers.

"He started spending time by himself, in his room," Wildason says. "Then his friends started to change. People he was going out with I'd never heard of before."

Rosela says her son began having dramatic mood swings.

"One minute he was happy, the next he was angry," she says.

These behaviors are common among teenage drug abusers, says Katherine Bonincontri, president and executive director of Pascal Community Services Intercept, which provides treatment for patients with mental illness and substance abuse problems in Anne Arundel County.

Other signs of drug abuse include small pupils, slurred speech, sedation, euphoria, shallow or slow breathing and analgesia, or feeling no pain.

Suspicious of Connor's behavior, Wildason searched his room for signs of drug use. What she found devastated her: a bag of Percocet and a bag of Cymbalta, medication prescribed to treat everything from depression and anxiety to chronic muscle and bone pain.

"Our whole world started tumbling out of control," she says.

The long road

HeroinConnorandAndreaWAndrea Wildason and her son, Conner Ostrowski, celebrate 12 months clean.At age 16, Conner enrolled in his first outpatient drug rehabilitation program and began attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings. To ensure he didn't use, Wildason took several months off work and stayed by his side every day and night. Wildason also pulled him out of high school, homeschooling him instead.

"I reattached the umbilical cord," she says.

The routine worked for Conner – until December 2012. All the old warning signs returned. He was using again.

"I told him I couldn't have him in my house," Wildason says. She says she told him, "I love you. This is my safe place. This is your brothers' safe place, and it's your safe place. But I can't have you in this house if you are using drugs."

So Conner returned to his Narcotics Anonymous meetings to get his rehabilitation back on track. Little did she know Conner had started using heroin.

In February, the family took a vacation together in Colorado.

"Conner seemed to be doing well," Wildason says.

But the night they returned from their trip, Wildason realized the battle was far from over.

"That night, we got a call saying our son was at Harbor Hospital and had overdosed," she says. "When I walked into the ER and saw him, it was the first time I had seen the needle marks."

"I died inside," she says. "I had just spent the better part of a year trying to save him, and he nearly died."

Where to turn for help

Emergency rooms can provide life-saving treatments for teens who overdose on drugs, but they do not fix the long-term problem, Bonincontri says.

Parents of drug abusers need to get their children to qualified therapists, she says. Those therapists can then help families come up with a treatment plan tailored to the individual addict.

"This disease is like every other medical problem that you or your child will ever face,"

Bonincontri says. "It's a disease, and we need to fight it like it's cancer. ... You have to fight it like your life depends on it."

County health departments and local crisis lines offer resources for parents of children who abuse drugs. Rehabilitation centers throughout the state can also provide outpatient and inpatient treatment.

In addition, most counties have secured, permanent medication disposal boxes available to safely dispose of any unused opioid pain medications and lessen the chance of drugs falling into the wrong hands, Scornaienchi says.

To help prevent addiction, parents should talk with their children early about the dangers of all drugs, says Eric Wish, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Research at the University of Maryland College Park.

"Parents should be concerned about alcohol and synthetic designer drugs more than they should about heroin," he says. "Heroin has a horrible reputation in our society, and it's usually the last drug people will turn to after they have used everything else."

And don't be afraid to call the police, Altomare says.

"Parents need to remember they are parents," Altomare says. "That should be their overwhelming mandate and not to be their friend. It might make them mad, but it could save their life."

Finding a solution

HeroinGingerRoselaWGinger Rosela, Jake's mom, educates others about the dangers of heroin. In February (2015), Gov. Larry Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford created the Heroin and Opioid Emergency Task Force to address the state's growing heroin and opioid crisis. The group, made up of law enforcement professionals, elected officials and substance abuse experts, meets regularly to gather input and guidance from educators and families suffering from addiction. One of the task force's goals is to prevent kids from using heroin in the first place.

In Anne Arundel County, Schuh says his administration is taking a "three-pronged attack" to address the health care, public safety and education components of the epidemic.

On the health care side, Schuh says he has committed money in the 2015-16 budget to expand addiction and mental health treatment programs. For public safety, the police department, sheriff and state's attorney's offices are all focusing more efforts on narcotics than in years past, Schuh says.

Still, the long-term solution to heroin use is education, he says.

"We have to educate these young people before they try these drugs for the first time so they never try them," he says.

In March (2015), Schuh and the Anne Arundel County Heroin Task Force hosted a town hall meeting on heroin called "Not My Child." Held at Anne Arundel Community College, the auditorium was full and an overflow room was set up to accommodate the crowds.

This year, Schuh plans to work with the county school system to bring more drug awareness into the curriculum.

"I believe in all my heart we're going to turn the tide against this thing and send heroin back to the depths of hell where it belongs," Schuh says.

And according to Rosela, hell is just where heroin belongs.

"It's the devil," she says of the substance that killed her son.

Since Jake's death, Rosela has dedicated her life to educating others about the dangers of heroin. She testified before the Maryland General Assembly in support of the Good Samaritan Law, which provides criminal immunity for people who help anyone experiencing a medical emergency because they ingested drugs or alcohol. She also talks with parents weekly who are just beginning to fight their child's drug abuse.

"Parents just need to know that there's hope and they are not alone," she says. "As long as your child is still alive, there is hope."

Conner, now 20, has been clean two years. He is finally working his dream job as a house lighting designer for a North Carolina music venue. He is even sponsoring teens facing similar addictions to his.

Conner admits he still has weak moments, but that's when he turns to his 12-step substance abuse recovery program and his "clean network," made up of other recovering addicts and his family members.

"It's about perseverance," he says. "I can't give up, and I have to have a network that won't give up on me either. And the biggest part of that network is my mom."

"It's day by day," he continues. "There's no graduating a 12-step program. A recovered addict is the addict who dies clean. Other than that, we are constantly recovering and growing."

Story by Allison Eatough

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