Should we change the way we talk to kids about drug abuse?

Former NBA star Chris Herren to keynote local talk
Posted at 7:24 AM, Nov 10, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-10 09:55:38-05

CINCINNATI – Teens aren’t afraid of heroin or addiction, says former Boston Celtics star Chris Herren.

Too often, Herren said, the message to teens about drug use and abuse is delivered in “scared-straight” stories that miss the mark. Founder of the The Herren Project, the former NBA player says he’s on a mission to change the way families and educators talk to students about addiction.

A recovering addict who struggled with substance abuse most of his basketball career, Herren will be in Cincinnati Thursday to speak to students and families at St. Xavier High School, 600 W North Bend Road, at an event slated to start at 6 p.m.

“Nobody ever envisions sticking a needle in their arm – so let’s stop trying to scare them and let’s start trying to understand them,” he said. “We focus on the worst day, instead of the first day – those insecure moments when they’re 13 or 14 that lead to drug use.”

Ahead of his talk here, Herren shared his thoughts with WCPO about the region’s heroin epidemic. He said the stories of addiction and overdose that have gripped the region “are everywhere.”

“I’ve spoken all across the country, and every community is struggling with this,” he said. “Kids, all over, are growing up in homes that are struggling with this – or maybe they have insecurities for other reasons. We have to start giving them space to talk about it.”

Rock Bottom’ Has Killed A Lot Of People

For Herren, drug abuse started at 14 when he began drinking his father’s beer. The drinking continued throughout high school as Herren honed is basketball skills.

“Here I am, a McDonald’s All American player, and I can’t even be myself on the weekend,” he said. “There was nothing right about that.”

Herren’s battle with addiction – the subject of ESPN documentary “Unguarded” – peaked when he was 32.  That’s when he overdosed on heroin for a fourth time – nearly missing the birth of his third child.

“A gentleman who was counselor in a treatment center I was in told me I should just fake my own death and get as far away from my family as possible so they could live,” he said. “I’ve been sober since.”

Through helping others who are battling addiction, Herren said it’s clear that “the language around addiction” can be dangerous.

“I think the word rock bottom has killed a lot of people,” he said. “Every day for 10 years I took a chance at killing myself. That’s pretty rock bottom. Families wait for this inevitable moment when everything will get turned around. What are we waiting for? Sick people need treatment.”

‘It’s OK to Struggle’

During his talks, Herren says he focuses on helping teens understand what it means to grow emotionally.

“I want kids to recognize that it’s OK to struggle, and it’s better to be you and seek help when you’re struggling than it is to mask the pain,” he said. “A lot of these kids are walking around with heavy hardships and insecurities, but nobody knows because there’s not place for them to talk about it.”

Among his goals is to convince educators that wellness should be a core class taught in schools.

"From the very beginning we should be focusing on prevention and intervention by building kid's self-esteem," he said. 

At a talk earlier this month, Herren said a young girl in the audience stood up to share that her mother started “selling her on the internet” when she was nine.

“There should be places for this to come out that’s not in front of an entire room of people –but she felt like if she didn’t say it then, she may never say it,” he said.  “I think educators always think this talk will be about me. It’s not, it’s about these kids.”

Herren’s talk on Thursday at St. Xavier High School is open to the public. A second talk – just for students – is scheduled for Friday morning.