December 6, 2018

Coalitions in Action— McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition Gives Youth Prevention Leaders a Voice


Tell me about your community and the communities that your coalition serves – its population and unique features. When was the coalition formed?

The McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition was formed in 2000 when treatment providers in the area saw a rise in the number of heroin users accessing their services. The coalition’s goal is to promote resilience at the individual, family, and community levels through education of youth, parents, business and community leaders about the consequences of drug use.

McHenry County is a collar county due west of Chicago, Illinois, and nestled south of the Wisconsin border that takes pride in being an ideal place to live, whether as individuals enjoying their retirement years or families raising the next generation of healthy and productive citizens. The county’s population growth from 259,841 in 2000 to 308,760 in 2017 and a projected increase to 470,923 by 2030 makes it one of the fastest growing counties in the state. Projections are that a retiring urban population and in-migration of a growing Latino population will trigger this growth. The population, primarily white (85%), is relatively young and economically active with 90% of adults holding a high school diploma or higher level of education. McHenry County compares to the State of Illinois with a median household income of about $60,000.

What unique issues is your coalition facing?

With pockets of extreme wealth comes the ability to mask an issue that leaves 13% of children under 18 living in poverty. The county has transitioned from a rural/agricultural to a service/manufacturing-based economy that supports a growing urban lifestyle defined by consumer preference. The county’s progress continues to be hampered by the lack of a reliable public transportation system, making it difficult for many of the county poor to go to work or access treatment/support services.

Like many communities in the nation, McHenry County has seen an increase in use of, and death by, opioids. In 2017, McHenry County was in the top 5 of Illinois for overdose death by opioids. The county is located in the center of what is known as “the drug triangle,” created by Chicago, Milwaukee, and Rockford, which allows for easy access to heroin through primary highways that connect the cities. This past year the county has actually seen a significant decrease in overdose deaths, but an increase in all forms of stimulants. 

What activity or program is your coalition most proud of and / or what activity would you like us to spotlight?

“In spring of 2017 the coalition was approached by Alden Hebron-School District 19 to educate their students about what we were doing about opioids in McHenry County,” said program coordinator Laura Crain. “Feeling that opioids may be a bit too specific, we expanded to addiction. In summer of 2017 we began a year-long service learning project with their students in grades 5-8. Key partners and experts in our community met with students throughout the first semester for educational purposes and the students ended the project by publishing a book that is distributed throughout the county. What started as an educational program in a small, rural community changed the conversation and environment in the school about addiction. While the project was designed with the students in mind, the impact on the experts that presented was unplanned and has changed how they view their role in education and the need for prevention efforts.”

The following semester, students met once a week with experts in the community to learn about addiction. Topics discussed included vaping, alcohol, marijuana, brain science, drug recognition, Narcan, legal issues, addiction’s impact on family, neo-natal abstinence syndrome, behavioral health, in-patient treatment, out-patient treatment, and death and determination of drug overdose. The students took fieldtrips to drug-court, a hospital emergency department, a drug dog demonstration, and a recovery home. One of the most impactful sessions was when students interviewed people in recovery, family members of people in recovery, and family members of people that had died of an overdose. 

How did you get there, and what are your outcomes?

The coalition made use of CADCA’s Seven Strategies for Community Change by:

  • Providing Information – Educational presentations to staff and parents on addiction and mental health
  • Enhancing Skills – Staff trainings on identifying students at risk
  • Providing Support – School developed a Snowflake Club
  • Enhancing Access/reducing barriers – Developed an agreement with local treatment provider for assessment to occur on school premise instead of needing transportation to another location
  • Changing Consequences – parents were required to sign a permission slip for student participation
  • Physical Design – Students created “drug free zone” posters for local businesses, the coalition requested businesses to post them if they were committed to acting on drug free areas (5 businesses posted the signs)
  • Modifying/changing policy – the school district reviewed and updated their policy for drug and paraphernalia possession and use. Specifically, changes were made to address athletes having the opportunity to voluntarily request treatment and continue to play in sports competitively

“Through the use of these strategies, students became voices that wanted to be heard,” said Crain. “Students shared their own stories both in weekly sessions and in private with counselors. They would become upset if people said that addiction was anything but a disease, and explain to them that people don’t have a choice when it gets to that level. They talked about why making a choice to not start any drug was important. They supported their classmates who expressed rough things they were facing at home. The school became a safe zone where students felt they could ask questions and explore not just the topic of addiction but all the things that lead to use.” 

This feeling of safety carried over to families. Two different families came to staff in the first three months searching out help for addiction, stating that it was because their kids were talking about what they learned and the parents felt the staff was not going to judge them if they told their story. In addition, the coalition received several calls from parents looking for community resources. On parent night, multiple families said they were grateful that the school had taken the initiative to develop this program, because most of the school families have addiction and overdose as part of their story. The strongest outcomes for the coalition were in these anecdotal components where community showed a change in core beliefs about interacting with people in addiction and their families.

What advice would you give to other coalitions that may be addressing some of the same issues?

“Parent engagement is one of the most difficult sustainability components that the McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition faces,” said Crain. “We often get the small crowd of parents that are engaged in all aspects of their children’s lives, but not necessarily the parents that could benefit from what we are trying to share. This project demanded education and conversation with parents before their children could participate (permission slips signed at parent night were required and all but two families attended and signed). If you are considering a project like this, make sure staff has been trained on the topics, parents are educated and aware of every step taken during the project, and that all adults are aware of signs of anxiety, stress, and depression in students. Consistent exposure to the realities of addiction should not be covered with students unless the adults around them are prepared and responsive to potential reactions to the material.”

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