HILLSBOROUGH, NJ – A “Community Conversation” focused on the mental health and substance abuse challenges facing township residents will be held Saturday, Jan. 20 at Hillsborough High School.

Sponsored by the Hillsborough Education Association, the forum will be moderated by a trained facilitator to maximize input from all participants.

The event is open to all members of the public 13 and older.

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The three-hour conversation begins at 9 a.m.

Members of the Township Committee, Board of Education, Police Department and other organizations have been invited to participate.

In New Jersey, high rates of opioid addiction have claimed an estimated 5,000 lives in the past decade, with more people dying in New Jersey in 2016 from drug overdoses than from guns, car accidents and suicides, combined. According to the Office of the State Medical Examiner of New Jersey, there were between 2,090 and 2,250 drug-related deaths overall in New Jersey in 2016, up from 1,587 in 2015.

New Jersey also has the sixth highest rate in the nation of visits to the emergency room due to opioid abuse. And naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose, has been administered over 25,000 times in New Jersey since 2014.

Parents and students had gathered for a “Night of Conversation” in November at the township municipal complex to confront the realities of drug and alcohol abuse in Hillsborough and surrounding communities. They heard from a guest panel that included Michael H. Robertson, Somerset County Prosecutor; Rebecca Balaguer, Student Assistant Counselor at Hillsborough High School and Cara Goldstein, a licensed Professional Counselor.

The Somerset County YMCA, Hillsborough Township School District, Empower Somerset, the Safe Communities Coalition of Somerset County, Hillsborough Municipal Alliance and Hillsborough Youth Services Commission partnered to host the Night of Conversation.

Robertson minced no words, saying he was alarmed at the high incidence of opioid abuse and heroin becoming the drug of choice for teenagers throughout Somerset County.

“It’s not getting any better,” Robertson said. “Hillsborough has a problem. It is in your backyard.”

Hillsborough has one of the highest rate of naloxone, or Narcan deployment in Somerset County, according to Robertson, ranking in the top 3 of the county’s 21 municipalities. Narcan is used by police and emergency responders to block the effects of opioids. It can be administered intraveneously, by injection, or more commonly, sprayed into the nose.

Robertson suggested that parents need to act more like parents, and not care as much about being a friend to their children, a message that his father repeated often as he grew up.

“I’m your father, not your friend,” Robertson recalled his father saying.

“The pendulum needs to swing back,” he added.

“While the law enforcement community continues to play a significant role in support, education, and enforcing the law, it requires an entire community to address an issue as widespread and potentially lethal as drug and alcohol abuse and addiction,” Robertson said.

Panelists emphasized the need for communication between parents and their children, vigilance, paying attention to friends, any changes in patterns or behavior,

The message was made clear – prevention is not passive; parental oversight is a must.  

“Make sure children make good decisions,” said Dr. Jorden Schiff, Hillsborough superintendent of Schools. “I have buried students,” he said. “It is the worst feeling in the world.”

 “We need to speak to our kids,” Balaguer said, urging frequent conversations between parents and children.

“Obviously, we have an issue,” she added, offering a long list of why students turn to drugs.

“They start using because they want to feel good, feel better, perform better; school can be stressful.”

Students will act impulsively; they’re curious, want to impress their friends and frequently succumb to peer pressure, she added.

Goldstein, from the Family Center for Change delivered a similar message, adding that teens are susceptible to temptation.

She also spoke of genetics; 50 percent of those who become addicted do so because the disease runs in the family, according to Goldstein.

“It’s OK to ask for help; there is no shame in getting counseling if needed,” she said.

Those interested in attending the Jan. 20 event are asked to pre-register online:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/community-discussion-tickets-41869867902?aff=ehomecard

The event is free; a light breakfast will be served.