Attending funerals is not a regular activity for most millennials. Yet 24-year-old Hilliard resident Cody Brooks wonders not when but how many more he will attend.

Attending funerals is not a regular activity for most millennials.

Yet 24-year-old Hilliard resident Cody Brooks wonders not when but how many more he will attend.

The 2010 Darby High School graduate said last year he attended 14 funerals for friends and acquaintances who died from an overdose or other complication associated with heroin abuse.

"I have my dress shoes and my suit laid out. ... It's the reality (of heroin addiction)," Brooks told an audience gathered this month at Bradley High School to address the growing use of heroin in communities throughout central Ohio, including Hilliard.

The Oct. 4 town-hall-style forum was organized by the activist group Health Awareness and Recovery Together -- HART, for short -- in response to the increasing frequency of drug abuse, particularly heroin, in Hilliard. These organizers and other residents have been working to marshal support from all quarters of the community to fight the problem.

A statewide problem

Fatalities from heroin use are on the rise in Ohio, recent data show.

According to the Ohio Department of Health, of the unintentional drug overdose deaths in 2015, 1,424 were related to heroin, up from 1,196 in 2014. Nearly 85 percent of drug overdoses last year involved an opioid, such as heroin, fentanyl or prescription medications, up from 80 percent in 2014.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that 2,744 Ohioans died from drug overdoses in 2014, making Ohio the state with the second-highest number of overdose deaths, following California.

That year Ohio joined West Virginia, New Mexico, New Hampshire and Kentucky as one of the five states with the highest rates of drug overdose deaths.

A significant amount of crimes in counties across the state are committed by addicts who have to feed daily habits, said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. A $15-per-day habit might turn into a $1,500-per-day habit to buy heroin, fentanyl or pain medication, he said.

The opiate-addiction epidemic is as likely to be in an affluent suburb as an inner city, DeWine said.

"There's just no community that doesn't have this problem," he said.

Local repercussions

Local trends seem to be keeping pace with the state data.

Norwich Township medics and Hilliard Division of Police officers said in recent years they have responded to an increasing number of overdoses and crimes related to the use of opiates, specifically heroin.

"(Heroin) truly does not discriminate," said Sgt. Joshua Cohill, a 15-year veteran and member of the division's special-investigations unit.

Aside from the direct and detrimental effect on its users, Cohill said, family members suffer an emotional toll watching love ones suffer, or worse, discovering an overdose.

Vicky Clark, director of student-support services for Hilliard schools, said the district cannot specifically quantify the frequency of drug-abuse in the student population at Hilliard schools.

"But we are beginning to track the data better," she said, because an increasing number of students are receiving treatment from the district's mental-health-awareness team.

A team is present in every building, said Lauren Hixon, a clinician at Darby High School and a licensed social worker at Syntero, a mental-health and counseling agency.

This is the fourth school year the district has contracted with Syntero, Clark said, and the supplemental staffing for mental-health-awareness teams is at its largest this year: approximately 135 team members are dispersed among the district's 23 schools.

"I can tell you I'm busy all day, every day," Hixon said when asked to quantify if the problem has escalated in the past year.

Norwich Township fire Chief Jeff Warren said overdoses related to the abuse of opiates have increased this year, with 51 reported to his department through the end of September.

Norwich Township received reports of 45 overdoses in 2015.

The department tracks how many overdoses are treated with naloxone, a medication used to reverse the effects of opioids, including heroin.

"All our engines, ladders and command vehicles carry Narcan (a trade name for naloxone)," Warren said.

Naloxone blocks the effect of heroin and treats an overdose by reversing the proportion of dopamine and adrenaline in the body, according to Dr. Eric J. Cortez, an emergency-room physician at OhioHealth Doctors Hospital.

Cortez said the appeal of heroin is that it increases dopamine in the body, which creates a feeling of euphoria; the danger is that it takes larger quantities to achieve the same effect as the body builds tolerance.

The increase in dopamine is coupled with a decrease in adrenaline, Cortez said, and as the amount of adrenaline drops lower and lower, a heroin abuser's body becomes so relaxed that vital brain-operated functions, such as breathing, slow down or cease.

The front-line battle

The feeling of euphoria -- and the motivation to do anything to maintain it -- cannot be understated, said Brooks, who has been clean for more than 22 months.

Brooks agreed to share his story Oct. 4 at the request of HART.

Karen Norval said she was motivated to co-found HART because of how often others expressed skepticism or disbelief that heroin exists in a community like Hilliard.

"I just kept hearing over and over from some people, 'But it's not in Hilliard,' " she said.

Heroin wasn't hard for Brooks to find after his path to addiction began in an increasingly common manner: He was prescribed expensive painkillers for a sports-related injury, and the effects of the medication could be replicated with cheap heroin.

Brooks eventually was arrested in October 2014 outside a Hilltop residence police had under surveillance. The arrest led him to the courtroom of Franklin County Municipal Court Judge Scott VanDerKarr.

Brooks credits his climb from the abyss of heroin abuse not to multiple stints in treatment programs or rehabilitation centers but to VanDerKarr, who at the time presided in a "drug court" where he considered cases that prosecutors and defenders referred to him.

It took a second incarceration for Brooks to summon the strength to command his addiction but he said he knew the alternative was his own funeral.

"The second time I was in jail I knew that one day (my heroin abuse) would lead to death. ... If I hadn't gone to court, I wouldn't be here."

VanDerKarr, who retired in January, is lobbying other Ohio courtrooms to establish drug courts.

"We need to accept drug abuse as a disease and put the same financial backing behind it," he said.

Any action by a municipality needs the backing of the community to be successful, though, according to Hilliard Mayor Don Schonhardt.

The HART town-hall meeting reiterated that the entire community must unite to help solve the many issues surrounding the use of heroin, he said.

"It's not just up to police, the courts, the schools or the city to solve this problem alone," Schonhardt said.

The mayor said he encourages HART and other community partners to continue to be a part of the collaborative effort to help foster responsible and healthy lifestyles and bring the use of addictive drugs to an end.

Some members of the local faith community have been trying to do just that.

Nick Vega, who leads a weekly drug-recovery outreach at Cypress Wesleyan Church, 377 Alton Darby Road, helps people recover through faith.

The church conducts a Night of Hope at 6:30 p.m. each Tuesday to provide individualized support for people coping with divorce, death and drug addiction, among other life-altering events.

"It's a Christ-centered, 12-step program where we talk openly about recovery and addiction," Vega said.

Hilliard City Schools officials, meanwhile, are striving to be proactive.

Clark said the district has a "very aggressive" approach toward mental health.

In addition to the Syntero teams, the district has one full-time health clinician at each of the three high schools and one part-time clinician at every other school building.

Also, four guidance counselors are employed at each of the three high schools, two at each middle school and one at each sixth-grade building. Part-time guidance counselors are available at the elementary level.

Syntero trains faculty and staff how to identify signs of drug abuse and other mental-health issues.

"We have professional-development days to train our staff to recognize signs of depression, anxiety, bullying that can be associated with drug abuse," Hixon said.

Hixon said the district is focused on helping students "no matter what choices they are making."

She said it is less about punishment and more about getting them the help and treatment they need.

In some cases, that means district officials work with students' substance abuse in confidence.

But in other instances, such as when there is clear harm to the student or to another person, the district is obligated to report it to parents, guardians or law enforcement, Hixon said.

Each case is different but Clark estimates about five to seven sessions of 30-minutes each generally leads to successful treatment or reveals that outside intervention is required.

She said the district supports collaborative efforts to increase available resources.

Such collaboration is essential for any community to identify, accept and solve the problem, according to Hilliard Division of Police Chief Bobby Fisher.

"We are all faced and challenged with the problem of (drug) addiction. No community is immune and no one can solve it alone," he said.

ThisWeek reporter Sarah Sole contributed to this story.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo