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Anti-drug messages miss mark with the young

May 21, 2013

Former Boston Celtic and Boston College basketball star Chris Herren kicked off the 2013 National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers (NAATP) Conference in San Antonio with a moving story of his 14-year battle to overcome substance abuse. It was a battle that he was losing for more than a decade until a series of angels — health professionals, hometown friends, law enforcement, even fellow homeless men — pointed him in the right direction long enough to enable another NBA player and one-time teammate Chris Mullen, to step in and pay for months of addiction treatment that Herren couldn’t afford.  

Herren, who tells the awful story of his addiction in his book, Basketball Junkie, pointed out to the audience that American colleges by and large offer little meaningful help for those at risk for drug abuse. After bouts of drug abuse in his high school years, he became hooked on cocaine and opiates just three months into his freshman year at Boston College, he recalls that anti-drug messages offered by coaches and college officials fell on deaf ears. 

College, he found, holds special hazards for young people, particularly young athletes, since their privacy—even for drug abuse—is protected even from their parents  now protected by law. “These kids have a positive drug test and no one has to know,” said Herren, who often speaks to college age athletes. After Herron spoke at a Division 1 college, a young man introduced himself. The man was an outstanding pitcher and a promising prospect, but also a heroin addict. “I found that there were more than a dozen kids who were addicted in that athletic department.”

Herren offered to assist the young man in finding help and by staying in close touch.  He said that the young man did—for a month. However, it wasn’t a long time later that the young man was found in a bathtub at home—dead of an overdose.  

The former Celtic takes issue with many drug-prevention messages, which he says, “show pictures of the last days of a drug addict.” While such photos are disturbing, Herren maintains that they invite disbelief by healthy young people, the feeling that they remain in control despite growing signs of trouble.  “We don’t show pictures of the first days of addiction. I think that this is where [drug prevention message] went wrong for us [in college].  We all start out as I did, by hiding, sneaking, and cheating. We have no idea, as young people, that we’re going to end up with a needle and a crack pipe. We don't see ourselves in the picture of an 'addict.'”

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