How schools can help combat the rise in teen overdose deaths

Schools are introducing new measures and drug prevention organizations are adding to their curricula to combat a disturbing rise in teen overdose deaths.

Drug use among high school students is in a historic decline, but the particular substances teenagers are consuming are becoming more dangerous, including some laced with fentanyl.

Fatal overdoses among teens have doubled over the last three years.

“I think that teachers — that all elementary, middle, high school and college professors — they have a responsibility to understand the environment now that we’re in,” CADCA President and CEO Barrye L. Price said. 

Only a tiny amount of fentanyl is needed to kill a person, especially someone younger and inexperienced with drugs. Most teenagers who overdose on fentanyl likely did not know it was in the drug they were taking. 

Among those aged 15 to 19, drug and alcohol deaths went from 788 in 2018 to 1,755 in 2021, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tabulated by The Hill.

Teachers “need to understand that kids might be experimenting with drugs, that they may – I mean, you’ll find marijuana even, laced with fentanyl. That they may be experimenting or a kid may have taken a pill that somebody else bought for their mind,” said Price, a retired Army general.

“I know many parents who had children who died of somebody saying, ‘Hey, this is a study drug. This will help you to focus,’ you know, Adderall, and it was laced with fentanyl,” he added. 

In the fall of 2022, Los Angeles-area schools saw multiple teenagers overdose, with one 15-year-old girl dying at school. The police said the pills she took were likely laced with fentanyl. 

The Los Angeles Unified School District has taken several actions since the overdoses to combat the problem, including providing education and courses for students and families about fentanyl and substance abuse, increasing partnerships with community organizations and holding a press conference about the opioid crisis. 

However, the two most important steps it took, according to advocates, were making Narcan available in every K-12 school and allowing students to carry the medication. 

Narcan is used as a treatment for opioid overdoses that is easily administered and safe to use. Even if Narcan is given to someone falsely suspected to have overdosed, the medication will not hurt them. 

“We are very lucky to have, in general, to have a drug like Narcan,” National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora Volkow said. “No. 1, it is an extremely safe drug, and, No. 2, it is very effective in reversing an overdose from opioids.”

The push to get Narcan in schools is relatively new, as these types of overdoses weren’t as regularly seen among teenagers before. 

“The possibility of carrying fentanyl, easily accessible in schools, was not an issue because overall teenagers don’t seek out heroin, they don’t seek out fentanyl. This is a relatively new perspective that has been brought up by the fact that prescription pills, these discounted pills, are now, over the pandemic, just expanded the access to these pills with fentanyl,” Volkow said. 

“Making these Narcan drugs available — that is very good medication, very effective and very safe — makes a lot of sense. And so, which is why, to the extent that you make it available in schools, in various places, could be saving the life of someone,” she added. “So this is the message that we want to pass: Make Narcan as widely available as possible.”

That goal just got a big boost after the Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved the first over-the-counter version of the drug.

Organizations that have long worked with schools on drug prevention have recently had to update their programs to include the new fentanyl trends. 

Drug Abuse Resistance Education, more commonly known as D.A.R.E., has added a fentanyl “enhancement lesson” to its program in schools across the country.

“We’ve developed national lessons on vaping, social media safety, bullying, fentanyl, so that it can be addressed in the same fashion that all the other topics are getting addressed without the students knowing that we’ve transitioned to a new topic,” said Frank Pegueros, D.A.R.E. America President and CEO. 

Advocates raise concerns that conversations about drugs in schools are not done early enough or often enough, often treated as only an annual discussion. 

“I don’t think it can be a once-a-year assembly or a one time in a student’s kindergarten through 12th grade curriculum. It needs to be presented as an initial topic and the initial intervention and followed up,” Pegueros said.

Jon Sundt, founder of Natural High, a youth drug prevention program, said that already “there’s a ton that schools can do but they just don’t do it.”

Sundt, who says he lost two brothers to addiction, said schools need to show videos that relate to the youth and have other young people come in to talk to students about drugs instead of the subject taught by “a 60-year-old dude on a chalkboard.”

“I think it’s incumbent upon schools to apply the concepts all throughout the kid’s junior high and high school career. Should probably start in fifth grade, maybe even fourth grade and go all the way through their senior year,” Sundt said. “It doesn’t have to be a lot. It has to be consistent. It has to be engaging. It can’t be like an assembly once a year. OK, that’s pretty good. It’s better than nothing. You can do better than that.”

Tags fentanyl narcan Nora Volkow schools

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