As the use of heroin and other opiods spread around the country, a new county official is making it her job to stem the tide in Will County.
Herald-News reporter Mike Mallory interviewed Kathleen Burke, who officially began work that same day as director of substance abuse initiatives for Will County, on Friday.
The county was recently approved for a five-year grant from the state to help pay for Burke’s position and other programs.
Burke is president and owner of addiction and recovery organization Strategic Prevention, and has worked with the county on drug abuse prevention programs that were introduced to school districts. She also trains first responders and others on how to administer Naloxone, a nasal spray that can reverse the deadly effects of an opioid overdose.
Mallory: So where does your passion for opioid prevention and awareness come from?
Burke: Prior to my position here I was with the Robert Crown Center for Health Education. I spent eight-and-a-half years there educating kids on risk behaviors. One of those is drug use. At the time, we were just starting to see heroin deaths. A grandfather came to us after his grandson died of a heroin overdose. He believed the only way to prevent it from happening is through education. Then we developed our first curriculum specifically focused on heroin for school districts. I got into the heroin issue because it was clear kids were dying and we didn’t know how to stop it. Police were saying they can’t arrest their way out of it.
Mallory: Could you describe the role you’ve accepted with Will County?
Burke: My company worked with Will County under a contract to educate first responders on how to use Naloxone. I trained police officers. And this is important because of the time it actually takes EMS to get to the scene. It’s critical. Those few minutes could cause a loss of life. Because of HB 1 [also known as the Heroin Crisis Act] it now allows other people to deliver Naloxone. Our goal now in Will County is to, besides the first responders, is to get Naloxone into the hands of people who potentially work with people addicted to opioids. I’ve met with Cornerstone Services to talk about getting their staff trained. We’re looking to do it across the board in the county, whether it be health care, community institutions, the Will County Jail, public defender’s office – anyone who may be in a place where someone may overdose.
Mallory: What’s the biggest misunderstanding people have made about opioid addiction?
Burke: People don’t understand those who are using. The whole face of opioid use has changed. It’s white middle-class to upper-class young people who are using. You can get it in any suburb you want to. Ask the kids in schools. Even if they’re not using, they know where to get it. Everybody knows where to get drugs and who sells them. Access is not a difficult thing. There’s increased access and early starts to addiction.
And pain pills are extremely addictive. Pharmaceutical companies told doctors they weren’t addictive. Doctors were uninformed and over-prescribing and contributing to the problem. We need to train our medical people differently. Medical schools rarely talked about addiction.
We also need to stop thinking the person with addiction is the drug seeker. In reality, they’re the ones that need help. And there aren’t enough treatment facilities and places to get well. The brain changes with opioid addiction. Research shows the most successful treatment is both therapy and medical management, which means using other [legal] drugs to help stay sober for longer periods of time. Prescription pain pills are now the No. 1 killer of young adults, surpassing car accidents.
Mallory: What kind of outlook do we need to have as a society to drop these record-setting usage and overdose statistics? What will it take?
Burke: Stop blaming the victim. The person with the disease is not at fault. We need to reduce stigma so there’s not a barrier to seeking help and families with relatives using feel they can seek help. We need to re-educate physicians and medical personnel. We need to create treatment addressing the fact that it’s a mental health illness. We need to change the way we insure treatment. Insurance companies look at an inpatient stay as the beginning and end of the disease, like it’s an acute illness.
That’s a fallacy. It’s just the beginning of a path to recovery. When someone has an addiction and chooses to seek help, they have to do it on their own. If you’re sick with heart disease, you have a doctor that manages your care. A doctor makes arrangements. When you have an addiction, there’s no doctor managing your care. It’s all self-referral. You have to find places that will take your insurance. Then you need follow-up care. There’s no support system set up and not enough recovery beds in Illinois for treatment. We don’t have enough detox beds or psychiatrists to provide care. We need a whole system overhaul. We need to look at it completely different. We’re addressing it with Band-Aids. And it can’t be dictated by insurance companies.