The phrase “substance abuse” is something most of us have heard. But hearing the phrase and understanding it are two different things.

When most people see or hear of someone with a drug problem, they think the person is a “junkie” and not worth anything. They see the drug problem as something that can easily be stopped whenever the addict chooses.

What people fail to realize is the drug problem our country is facing is much bigger than we may think. The heroin epidemic sweeping the nation is a problem that needs to be acknowledged, understood and dealt with.

Heroin took my sister from my family two years ago. For years, we watched her struggle with addiction, battling the internal demons she so badly wanted to escape.

She wanted to get off heroin so she could be a mother to her two sons, but the grip heroin had on her was too strong. I've seen how the drug tears families apart, and I've seen how it takes hold of the addict.

As a result of my sister's death, I've seen the emptiness and sadness heroin leaves in its wake.

The effect that heroin has on your brain is astonishing. When you use the drug, you become a slave to it, and getting more becomes your only purpose in life. Science has shown an addiction to heroin can be created from the first use, and it is the most difficult drug to get off of.

It takes in-depth rehab and therapy to rid one of the addiction. Perhaps by court ordering those things in the first place, we can start saving lives.

In 2014, Indiana was ranked 16th in the country for the number of overdose deaths, and between 2002 and 2013, the number of heroin-related deaths nearly quadrupled.

Heroin affects people of every race and social class. In Hamilton County, Indiana, there is a huge heroin problem, yet they have some of the best schools and some of the most affluent residents. As a state and country, we need to come together and work on a solution to this gruesome problem.

In late October of this year, President Barack Obama issued clemency to 98 drug offenders who were charged with possession and attempt to distribute drugs. But was anything solved or fixed during their limited time in prison?

The recidivism rate for drug offenders is about 76.9 percent. That number is terrible. Perhaps instead of just releasing these offenders, we need to get to the root of the problem so we can see the rate decrease as well as the number of drug-related deaths.

Heroin and other drug problems aren't understood by the general public. There often is a very cynical attitude toward drug addicts — and sometimes hatred. But having that outlook doesn't help anybody.

By joining with our criminal justice system and helping them understand addiction, we can hope to see a decrease in the number of lives lost. By offering more drug programs during incarceration, we can start making a difference in the lives of these individuals.

We need to stop letting heroin win and start taking back our streets and towns.

Katie Cicillian is a Valparaiso resident and a law student at Valparaiso University. The opinions are the writer's.