HINSDALE, IL — Drug overdose deaths continue to break records nationally. While experts say education and treatment are key to countering the epidemic, others say there must be more focus on keeping addicts safe while they are using. One family has turned their personal tragedy into a mission to save lives through harm reduction.
Around the Stefani home, there are countless photos of their three sons: Matt, Steve and Ben.
“We were very close. We had dinner together every night. We were just a regular family,” said Marge Stefani.
What this regular family never expected was that behind the smiles, their son, Matt, was struggling with addiction.
“We were aware that Matt was having some issues with marijuana use. We sought out help,”’ said Matt’s father, Roger Stefani. “He was in some counseling and things like that.”
But what started out as experimentation and recreational use in high school quickly spiraled into a short, but intense, battle with drug and alcohol abuse.
“With Matthew, I think it was more significant and certainly more significant than we were aware of,” said Marge.
Over the course of 20 months, Matt was in and out of rehab. He overdosed three times. The last one happened while he was at a sober living home.
“He was alone,” said Roger. “And somewhere, Matt obtained heroin, snorted some heroin and died.”
For the Stefanis who thought they were doing everything they could, Matt’s death was emotionally devastating.
“I was just frozen,” said Marge. “When I say I was frozen, that wasn’t for a short period of time. I think it was four years because, you know, we were a family in crisis. We were all just watching out for each other.”
It’s something that many families are completely unprepared for.
“We can't do it all. Parents can't do it all on their own,” said Lance Williams, an education manager at Candor Health Education.
For decades, Candor has been providing drug awareness programs and education to middle schoolers.
“It's really a group effort of trusted adults in a young person's life. So really, it's working together,” said Williams.
It was those difficult lessons learned through their uncharted navigation of Matt’s addiction that prompted them as a family to start the Hope for Healing Foundation to support other families in crisis.
“I felt like there was a serious gap in services when it came to harm reduction services,” said Steve Stefani, Matt’s twin brother and the foundation’s programs manager.
The foundation provides a spectrum of resources beyond abstinence that include safer use, fentanyl detection strategies and access to the opioid overdose reversing drug Narcan.
“We also have to acknowledge that there is a huge chunk of the population who is for a variety of reasons, still currently using drugs. And we need to make sure that they're safe,” said Steve Stefani.
“You can tell people not to do stuff, but if it was that easy, then we wouldn't have problems in our world,” said Ben Stefani, Matt’s youngest brother.
And as the epidemic of opioid abuse and deaths continues to rise during the pandemic, experts say early education and prevention are key.
The Stefanis' advice for other families is not to assume the course is simple.
“We had great help, great advice,” said Marge Stefani. “And the truth is it really wasn't working for our child. I would say, keep seeking, keep searching.”