A south suburban man is on a mission to educate parents about drug use by teens.
State Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, right, introduces Danny Romeo on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018, at the Calumet Township Community Center. Romeo delivered a presentation on how parents can help prevent substance abuse by teens. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)
Danny Romeo wants parents to understand the different reasons why teens use drugs and why some casual users escape serious problems later in life while others develop addictions.
“Everybody is different,” Romeo said last week during a presentation at the Calumet Township Community Center in Calumet Park. “Treatment is not one size fits all.”
Romeo, 51, of Oak Forest, knows a lot about addiction and treatment. He worked for the Cook County sheriff’s office for nearly 25 years, retiring as chief of operations for the Department of Community Service and Intervention.
In that role, he oversaw programs designed to provide alternatives to detention. He also supervised drug education and treatment services for pretrial detainees.
Romeo was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2010 and uses a wheelchair to get around. He already held a master’s degree in teaching from Chicago State University and recently earned two more master’s degrees from Governors State University — one in criminal justice in 2014 and another in addiction studies in 2016.
He summarized his years of experience and studies about addiction in his hour-long presentation, “Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder: A Research-Based Guide.”
“If you’re an addict you don’t care about consequences because you’re in pain,” he said. “We choose to abuse drugs to stop the pain.”
Adolescents whose brains are still developing lack the capability to appreciate the concept of consequences, he said. Most commonly, children will be introduced to drugs and alcohol through peer pressure in social situations.
“Most teens don’t become addicts,” he said. “Still, experimenting is a problem.”
Romeo spoke to an audience of about 30 people, including Calumet Park Mayor Ronald Denson. Romeo cautioned the group about imposing moral judgment on young people who abuse drugs or alcohol. Substances abusers should not be viewed as failures if they are unable to stop without intervention, he said.
“Willpower and discipline are irrelevant to someone in pain,” he said. “It’s not weakness.”
He shared a couple key points about brain development and chemistry to help parents understand the science of addiction. For one, the prefrontal cortex takes more time to develop than other parts of the brain, he said. That’s the area of the brain that affects decision-making and appreciation of consequences.
“Teens have limited judgment. The prefrontal cortex matures later,” he said. “Drug use compromises the part of the brain that says ‘no.’”
His second scientific point was how the brain naturally produces dopamine, a neurotransmitter that affects feelings of reward and pleasure. Drug use typically causes good feelings by artificially creating large releases of dopamine, he said.
But drug use also diminishes the brain’s ability to release dopamine on its own, he said. When people stop using drugs, they typically feel depressed and generally lousy. People who stop using drugs for a month or more may find their dopamine levels return to normal, he said.
Romeo cited research that the majority of adolescents enrolled in substance abuse treatment programs are referrals through the juvenile justice system. The typical duration of a residential treatment program is 28 days, he said, because that’s the amount of time typically covered by insurance.
In 2016, Romeo joined the staff of Midlothian-based Phoenix Behavioral Services, which offers treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. He is the primary group facilitator for providing cognitive behavioral therapy sessions. Phoenix operates a second facility in Tinley Park.
In July, Calumet Township Supervisor and state Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, appointed Romeo to serve as a special assistant in the 28th District. Romeo is “responsible for administrative and representational duties in all aspects of addiction education,” according to a written announcement by Rita.
“We’d like to present this seminar throughout the district,” Rita told me, adding that he and Romeo are cousins. “If we can save one person, it’s all worth it.”
Rita introduced Romeo at the presentation Sept. 12 and read a proclamation recognizing September as National Recovery Month.
“Through my own personal experiences, I know this can be a difficult subject to tackle with your children,” Rita wrote in a message distributed to audience members.
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