By Emily Adelman and Hannah Fleager SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — When you are the parent of a three-sport athlete and honor student, you imagine where he wants to go to college, not where he wants to go to get his next fix.
Angela and Mark Stevens never thought these would be the thoughts running through their minds when they learned of their son’s heroin addiction.
“We didn’t know and once we did find out, we immediately asked our pastor and went in front of our church and asked for prayers for our family because it does effect everyone,” Angela Stevens said.
As a parent, it is normal to be concerned about your children as they grow up, from the sports they play, the friends they have, and even to the food they eat. But, signs that your child has an addiction are not always as obvious as an allergic reaction.
“Just because they are motivated and getting good grades, doesn’t mean that they’re not doing drugs. You have to focus on your child. You can’t always take for granted when things are good. They might be good on the outside but not on the inside,” said Angela Stevens.
The heroin epidemic in Onondaga County is not new, but it has gained a significant amount of public attention over the last couple of years.
The use of heroin has increased across multiple demographic groups. It is abused most frequently among white males, ages 20 to 29, according to the Onondaga County Health Department. Additionally, heroin use has increased 31 percent in Onondaga County as of last year.
With the number of addicts rising every year, so much emphasis is placed on the addict’s treatment and recovery process. What goes largely unnoticed is the effect that a user’s addiction has on his or her family and the people around them.
After watching their son go through the recovery process, Angela and Mark learned that the support of one’s family is just as important, if not more important than physical treatments.
“I just learned a lot about different parents that try to hide it. They don’t want to admit that their child has a problem. Or don’t want the neighbors to know. They don’t want to do anything about it,” Mark said.
After discovering their son’s addiction, Mark and Angela decided that their son would not fight this battle alone.
“A lot of the accountability also has to be with the parents. The parents are a big part in the recovery of their loved one,” said Angela.
The Stevens’ son is on the road to recovery and continues to make progress about five years after his parents discovered his addiction. Now, Angela and Mark Stevens are looking to help and educate other families, specifically parents, who are going through the same situation.
“Each family member has to have some accountability as well. That’s part of the recovery aspect of it,” Angela said. Stevens also warned that hounding your child could have negative affects on their recovery process, and in turn, the family recovery process. “Just because they had a bad day doesn’t mean they are using,” she said.
Mark and Angela Stevens understand what it is like to have a loved one facing an addiction and how fragile and trying of a situation it can be. As they educate other parents and peers, they emphasize how important it is to persevere and continue to be there for the one in need.
“That’s what parents need to understand. You can’t give up on your child. That’s your child. That’s the same person you’ve known for years. They just got hung up in a bad situation with drugs,” Mark said.
Mark and Angela started the Baldwinsville Addiction Awareness Group a year and a half ago, whose mission is to “support and educate those with loved ones going through addiction.” It meets twice a month in the Community Wesleyan Church in Baldwinsville, inviting speakers and other advocates from around the county to come and speak on behalf of their organizations.
“Our group is more for the parents, like educating them on how they can help,” Mark added when describing the awareness group. The Stevens’ group is unique in the sense that it seeks to educate family members of addicts who are in the process of recovering, rather than console those who have lost someone to addiction.
“We advocate 24/7 and work hand in hand with local community groups, like HEAL and even Governor Cuomo’s office has been a big help,” Angela said.
Governor Cuomo’s office has taken a big step in the right direction in battling the heroin outbreak. His office recently announced that $500,000 would be used to expand access to addiction treatment services and family support in the Central New York area. This comes a year after Cuomo designated $8 million to fight the heroin and prescription drug epidemic apparent in New York, according to Cuomo’s office.
That money is desperately needed. The number of heroin overdoses in Onondaga County has jumped 500 percent in the last 4 years, from 14 to 84, according to the Upstate New York Poison Center.
Even though the number of overdoses continues to rise in Central New York, there is still a lack of treatment options for those addicted to strong drugs such as heroin. Crouse Hospital in Syracuse is the only hospital in central New York to provide an opioid treatment program and family services to those battling addiction, according to its website.
“You can’t give up on your child. That’s your child. That’s the same person you’ve known for years.”
However, for many addicts, one program in a rehabilitation center is not enough. “A majority of the addicts we work with, that we try to help, have done at least six, seven, eight, plus times in a rehab, in an inpatient rehab. It takes a long time,” Mark said. He also added that the amount of treatments an addict goes through also depends on how seriously he or she wants to get better.
While money for new medical treatments and facilities helps to combat the epidemic, efforts like those of the Stevens’ to not only support but also to educate everyone affected by heroin, are having a positive impact on the community as well.
Whether it be a child or a loved one, heroin touches the lives of everyone around the addict. For an epidemic that has been ignored for so long, the amount of awareness to combat heroin can only grow.
“We learned that it does affect everyone. The silence has to be broken,” Angela said.