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Should Opioid Use Education Be Required In Schools?

A Growing Epidemic

Heroin and prescription opioids are destroying families and communities across the country. More Americans now die from drug overdoses than car wrecks. In fact, between 2010 and 2015, heroin deaths increased nearly 328%. Now, many leaders are scrambling to combat the growing issue – and some are looking at starting with a younger age group. In 2015, New York public health law was amended to authorize school employees to administer naloxone, an overdose reversal drug. In Rhode Island, every middle school, junior high school, and high school is now required to have naloxone or its premises. In states like Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts and New Mexico, many schools have the life-saving drug on hand for emergency use. In another push, the New Jersey House passed a resolution that would encourage school districts to ask families to notify school nurses if their children are prescribed or taking opioid medications. Some states and school districts, however, believe that carrying naloxone or notifying school nurses of prescriptions may only be reactive and that a more proactive solution is necessary.

A Sign Of the Times? A Smart Move? Or Starting Drug Education Too Young?

In Michigan, lawmakers are now considering mandatory opioid use education in public schools. Other states, including Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, are also considering a similar bill. Ohio requires students K-12 receive instruction on the dangers of prescription opioid use. The curriculum, known as “HOPE” (Health and Opioid Use Prevention Education), is a series of lessons, assessments and learning material for students to develop skills and knowledge to prevent opioid use. Elementary school students – as young as Kindergarten – will learn about drug use prevention along with English-Language Arts Standards, while middle school and high school students will have a licensed health education teach implement opioid use lessons into a health education class. These measures have brought light to some startling facts when it comes to youth, substance use and behavioral health:

  • An estimated 1.3 million kids, age 12- to 17-years-old have a substance use disorder.
  • Half of adult mental illness begins before the age of 14
  • More than 40% of youth ages 13- to 17-years-old have experienced a behavioral health problem by the time they reach seventh grade
  • More than 1 in 10 youth, ages 12-17 had a major depressive episode in the past year
  • Those 12 to 19-years-old account for roughly 12% of all admissions to publicly funded rehabilitation facilities
  • The number of deaths from overdoses rose sharply in 2015 – and the number of young children and teens hospitalized for overdosing on prescription painkillers has tripled in recent years
  • In 2014, six percent of 12- to 17-year-olds used prescription opioids such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and fentanyl

With new proactive measures in place to address addiction and prevent student drug use, schools hope to combat some of the dire statistics – and bring true change to an influenceable population. While some parents feel that the topic may be too sensitive for young children, others argue that teaching kids can change a community. After all, education is key to tackling stigma, preventing drug misuse, and potentially even saving lives. Ignoring the growing drug addiction problem won’t make it go away – and in fact, it may make it worse. The fact remains that at some point, children – either as youths, teens, or adults, will more than likely be faced with alcohol, drugs, a family member or friend’s addiction or overdose situations. By the time parents or adults are able to acknowledge a child’s drug use, it may be too late.

Breaking The Silence

For many families, opioid addiction remains the ‘family secret’; something that isn’t to be discussed outside the walls of the home – or even discussed at all. While the current drug epidemic may be a difficult topic for families, it’s crucial to remember that heroin is an equal opportunity substance: The factors that make a person vulnerable to opiates cross any and all social, economic and ethnic lines. These conversations are important. The truth is important. And while parents and educators must walk a delicate line in talking to kids about drug and alcohol addiction, an age-appropriate, truthful conversation is more helpful than no conversation at all. What do you think? Is there an appropriate age to begin to talk about substances and addiction? When is time to talk to kids about overdoses – and what they can do to help someone who is experiencing an overdose?