In 2006, as an incoming college student traveled from Massachusetts to begin her freshman year at University of Wisconsin, she struggled with a painful loss that had nothing to do with homesickness.
Vanessa, who requested to be identified by first name only, was experiencing a withdrawal from opioids, detoxing from her Oxycontin addiction for the first time.
“That’s how I started my college experience,” Vanessa said. “I felt I was very different from everybody else.”
In her mind, Vanessa felt she had nowhere to turn. She didn’t know what campus resources were available to help her cope with her addiction and withdrawal, and she felt her drug dependence set her apart from peers. Ultimately, she dropped out of school and attempted to complete her degree several times over the next eight years.
Within that time, Vanessa struggled on and off with prescription drug abuse and heroin addiction.
During her last two semesters of school, she found sobriety and decided to use her experiences to build support for other UW students in recovery.
Discussions of creating an organization for recovering students had been going on for a few years, but the conversation lacked student input. In January 2014, Vanessa helped co-found Live Free, UW’s first student organization dedicated to fostering a supportive environment for students in recovery and their allies.
Ten active members currently form Live Free, and the organization is now trying to promote its services for students on campus as well as incoming ones, current co-chair Travis Fearing said. Fearing’s story is similar to Vanessa’s, and he discovered Live Free when he returned to campus after a two-and-a-half year hiatus.
“That first semester, that was such a critical part of my continued recovery as a student and ability to not feel isolated or alienated on this campus,” Fearing said.
Live Free, Fearing said, is putting UW on the map for students seeking recovery in college.
A rising epidemic
Wisconsin is not immune to the nationwide heroin epidemic that is plaguing urban and rural areas alike.
On Jan. 20, the Wisconsin State Senate unanimously passed the newest set of bills in Rep. John Nygren’s, R-Marinette, Heroin Opiate Prevention and Education legislation. They are now headed to Gov. Scott Walker’s desk.
The four bills are among many that Walker has already signed into law, a process that began in 2014. Nygren’s own daughter battled with heroin, and much of his legislation addresses the growing epidemic.
Previous HOPE bills-turned-law address many aspects of the heroin epidemic. They give criminal immunity to people who call 911 on a witnessed overdose, allow pharmacies to give patients naloxone — an anti-overdose medication — without a prescription and create regional treatment programs in underserved areas of the state.
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Public leaders’ recent focus on anti-heroin legislation aligns with statistics. According to DOJ, Wisconsin State Crime Laboratories examined 1,130 heroin cases in 2014. That number more than quadrupled since 2008, where the laboratories only saw 270 cases. The Center for Disease Control reported a 286 percent increase in heroin abuse between 2002 and 2013.
From prescription to addiction
According to CDC, heroin use has more than doubled among people aged 18 to 25 in the past decade, with 45 percent of heroin users also addicted to opioid painkillers. These painkillers are often a trigger for addiction and abuse of harder drugs, including heroin.
Richard Brown, substance abuse expert and professor in the Department of Family Medicine in UW’s School of Medicine and Public Health, said while heroin addiction is most rampant among young people, it can happen to anyone.
He said since opioid pain medications are controlled substances, people often think they are safe, so they keep taking them after their prescription expires, and become addicted.
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Lori Cross Schotten, spokesperson for Wisconsin United We CAN, an organization that aims to increase addiction awareness and provide support for families, experienced firsthand the dangers of prescription painkillers when her son became addicted to them.
She said prescription drugs especially affect young people whose brains are still developing. It alters their dopamine levels, and they gain a tolerance to the drug, causing them to turn to heroin.
For people who are taking a prescription drug like Vicodin for a month, which is what happened to Cross Schotten’s son, the body stops producing dopamine, and the medication ends up as the body’s only source of the drug. So, when the patient runs out of the prescription, the brain still tells their body that it needs that synthesized drug, Cross Schotten explained.
Brown said people then turn to heroin because it is cheaper. Opioid pain pills run at usually a dollar per milligram, so a pill’s price could land between $10 to $80, Brown said. Heroin, on the other hand, is much less expensive. According to The Washington Post, a single dose of heroin often costs less than a pack of cigarettes.
“Although many people promise themselves they would never do heroin at some point, because of urges and cravings that people get, [along with] the tolerance and expense, people switch over to heroin,” Brown said.
Safe places on campus
While Live Free created an on-campus community for students in recovery, some off-campus organizations help students as well. The Aaron J. Meyer Foundation owns two houses on Gorham Street, Aaron’s House for males and Grace’s House for females. The houses provide living arrangements for students who have gone through addiction rehabilitation programs and are seeking a place to live with supportive peers.
Susan Pierce Jacobsen, AJM Foundation president, said many universities across the country have Collegiate Recovery Communities on campus, where they provide housing and university-supported services for students who have sought recovery. UW does not support an official CRC the way some other Midwestern schools do, and Aaron’s and Grace’s Houses only hold five students each.
“We’re essentially a Band-Aid for the bigger solution, which would be a Collegiate Recovery Community in Madison,” Pierce Jacobsen said.
While UW’s Sullivan Hall has a substance-free floor, Pierce Jacobsen emphasized that is not the same as a CRC.
Sober communities like in Sullivan are mostly for students under 21 who choose not to use alcohol or drugs, but a CRC is for students who already went through substance abuse recovery and want to be around similar peers, Pierce Jacobsen explained.
“Rather than being put back in a dorm or living situation with kids that may use drugs or alcohol, they’re near peer support,” Pierce Jacobsen said. “They’re in a safer environment with people that understand them.”
Turning to state leaders
While the HOPE bills focus on critical components to addressing the heroin epidemic in Wisconsin, some say there are more issues to take care of.
Brown said the biggest gap in confronting the epidemic is funding adequate recovery programs in the state. The lack of funding for sufficient recovery programs, he said, should be addressed under healthcare reform legislation.
Vanessa agreed. She said solving the growing addiction crisis isn’t about cutting off the source of the drug — because if people want it, they will find it — but providing treatment options for recovery.
“Funding them to sit in a jail cell isn’t helping,” Vanessa said. “Funding them to go to detox and inpatient treatment — that might help.”
Cross Schotten said even some current legislation isn’t holding up as much as some hoped it might have. For example, people still hesitate to use the Good Samaritan law. Even though people who call 911 on an overdose cannot be prosecuted for possession, they still have potential to be charged with homicide if they provided the heroin that killed the person who overdosed, Cross Schotten said.
But some of Nygren’s upcoming legislation points to possible solutions. A bill introduced Jan. 7 would give grants to counties that establish treatment alternatives for convicted “individuals with certain crimes” instead of jail time.
A public health problem
Vanessa said her drug addiction completely changed the course of her life, but with the right support, she was able to overcome it.
A year and a half into sobriety and one year after launching Live Free, Vanessa graduated from UW with a bachelor’s degree in gender and women’s studies and communication arts in December 2014.
But problem goes beyond her story, and it is not an individual issue. Addiction can happen to anyone, Cross Schotten said.
“The most dangerous words any parent can say are ‘not my kid,’” Cross Schotten said. “Looking back, I think I might have been a little complacent because I thought, ‘We’re a good family, and that doesn’t happen to good families,’ and that’s so wrong. Many good families are being impacted.”
As the epidemic grows, people are beginning to understand it is actually a public health crisis. Vanessa said in the past, people tended to stereotype those struggling with substance abuse as the “scum of society,” but now more people see that the epidemic affects “suburban America” as well.
“I think people are starting to realize, ‘okay, this is our problem, too,'” she said.