The number of young Long Islanders in treatment for heroin addiction more than doubled from 2007 to 2009, flooding rehabilitation centers with thousands of complex cases.
"All of our treatment systems are being stretched to the max," said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, a Williston Park nonprofit that refers drug users to treatment.
In 2009, at least 3,555 Long Islanders younger than 26 and addicted to heroin entered state-certified rehab centers, compared with 1,689 in 2007, a 110 percent spike, according to the New York State Office of Substance Abuse Services.
Nationally, treatment centers saw a smaller but significant surge - 21 percent - in young heroin addicts under age 26. From Denver to the Chicago suburbs to much of the Northeast, heroin overdoses, arrests and overcrowded rehab centers have sparked community forums like the heroin summits seen in Nassau and school presentations in Suffolk.
Rises 'all across the country'
Experts said Long Island remains a center for the heroin epidemic which began in 2007. Once seen as an urban scourge, heroin's demographics have changed to include suburban middle-class teenagers and young adults. The drug is now powerful enough to be snorted instead of injected and a dose costs less than a night at the movies, Gilbride said.
Anecdotally, the surge continues, treatment experts said. Of 23 patients admitted in January to Phoenix House in Hauppauge, a long-term treatment center for men, 22 were in their 20s with heroin or opiate addictions, said Brian Gilliam, the center's director. "It was absolutely unheard of," Gilliam said.
But the surge in heroin use - a deadly drug often requiring special medication to treat - has caused far-reaching shifts in treatment, officials said.
Young people on heroin often present more complicated cases than marijuana and alcohol users, said Dr. Joseph Lee, of the Hazelden Center for Youth and Families, a Minneapolis area treatment center. They've often overdosed, are physically wrecked from their addiction and may face legal and mental health issues.
Turns into a 'different beast'
"By the time they get to opiates or heroin, they're really in trouble. It's become a completely different beast," said Lee, whose 75-bed facility has drawn increasing numbers of young heroin addicts from across the country.
Many are like Armando Siciliani, 22, a heroin addict from Ronkonkoma, who was hospitalized three times and jailed a dozen times. He was a veteran of several rehab centers before landing at the Hauppauge Phoenix House last December for a six- to nine-month stay ordered by his probation officer.
"When I came in, I was so lost," said Siciliani, who now speaks to high school audiences about the dangers of drugs. "It's not just about doing drugs. I have to relearn how to be a normal person."
At Phoenix House Academy in East Hampton, where about 90 percent of the 45 teenagers getting long-term treatment are heroin or opioid addicts, counselors recently added martial arts, yoga and meditation sessions.
"It's such a vicious addiction that you have to get these kids linked into totally different social activities," said Traci Donnelly of Phoenix House, which runs programs in the New York City area.
Most local rehab centers also now prescribe and administer Suboxone, a medication for opiate withdrawal symptoms. That includes Seafield Center, a Westhampton facility that once preached total abstinence from all substances, but added Suboxone as it took in more and more heroin addicts, who now account for 23 percent of its residential patients.
Yet the few centers appropriate for young people on Long Island often have waiting lists, so many parents look to Pennsylvania and Connecticut facilities. Some local centers need to adapt to having younger addicts with more serious problems, said Mary Silberstein, a board member of a group of Suffolk treatment centers called the Quality Consortium.
"You don't treat an adolescent the same as you would an adult," she said.