There’s an “awareness” week of some sort practically every week. It’s a good way to bring attention to an important issue and begin a conversation that might not come up otherwise. This week hits home for me.
My two beautiful grownup baby boys were both involved with drugs early in their lives. My late husband and I lived for years worried they wouldn’t make it through that dark tunnel of addiction. It’s an actual miracle to me that both of them did. Today, they’re happy and healthy and taking care of themselves and their families, but not all get that chance. Addictions are starting earlier and earlier. And kids are dying.
The good news: Abuse of heroin and prescription painkillers—opioids—is either stable or down among teenagers.
The bad news: Ninety percent of people who are addicted started using before 18. So during the vulnerable teen years, any abuse has the potential for lifetime consequences.
Over the past few years, no class of drugs has gotten more attention than opioids. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 2.1 million people in the United States have substance abuse disorders related to opioid abuse, while 467,000 are addicted to heroin. According to NIDA, unintentional overdose deaths from drugs such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and other opioids have quadrupled in our nation since 1999.
President Obama declared the week of September 19 “Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic Awareness Week” to shine a light on the problem.
“Opioid use disorder, or addiction to prescription opioids or heroin, is a disease that touches too many of our communities—big and small, urban and rural—and devastates families, all while straining the capacity of law enforcement and the health care system,” the president’s proclamation reads.
As we know, drug abuse and addiction strain our school communities, too.
Maia Szalavitz, a neuroscience journalist and author—who was addicted to cocaine and heroin from age 17 to 23—says in her new book Unbroken Brain that addiction should be thought of as a learning disorder. “Addiction, Szalavitz notices, is, predominantly, a problem of youth,” an NPR article says. “Most addicts get started when they’re still kids.”
To me, that offers hope. If only we can identify and reach vulnerable children and teens, we can stem the tide of abuse. But that’s a mighty big “if,” especially with dwindling numbers of school nurses, social workers and psychologists.
Many schools are responding by putting in place creative prevention programs. That’s what Neuqua Valley High School, outside of Chicago, did after three students died of overdoses over the course of about six months. In studying the scope of the problem in the area, researchers found that one-third of users started using heroin in high school, and the majority had no education about drug addiction prior to their use.
In another sign of the times, high schools are being offered a nasal spray that quickly reverses overdose, naloxone (better known by the name Narcan), for free. And the National Association of School Nurses last year issued a position paper stating that school nurses “should facilitate access to naloxone.” The paper also emphasized that its members—who are so rarely seen in schools because of budget cuts that I’ve called them unicorns—are “crucial primary prevention agents in school communities,” able to help families identify the signs of abuse and find resources.
We’ve all become familiar with what addiction looks like and the pain it causes. My heart broke a few weeks ago when I saw those pictures of the 4-year-old boy in Ohio the back of a minivan, strapped in his car seat, while two adults were passed out in the front from overdoses. One of them was the little boy’s grandmother. The adults recovered and were arrested and the little one is now living with relatives in South Carolina.
The town of East Liverpool made the controversial decision to post the photo on its public Facebook page. Some didn’t like it, but town authorities explained the decision this way: “It is time that the non-drug using public sees what we are now dealing with on a daily basis. We feel we need to be a voice for the children caught up in this horrible mess.” As a teacher, a mother and a grandmother, I worry about what that 4-year-old will remember, and how those memories will haunt him and affect his choices.
Across the nation, NEA members such as Andrew Smith, a classroom teacher-turned-school social worker and member of the Ohio Education Association, see the fallout in their communities and work hard to pick up the pieces. Just recently, a third-grader at his Cleveland-area school was placed in her grandmother’s custody after the child’s father died of a heroin overdose. It was the little girl who discovered him.
School social workers help students and families heal after such tragedies. Yet when it’s time to balance the budget, “the first thing that’s eliminated is student support services,” he says. “I haven’t met a parent who hasn’t wanted the best for their children, and many times they know they need help, but we can’t just hand them a list [of resources] and say, ‘Here. Pick one,’” Andrew says. “We have to be able to tailor that service to that child, and walk hand-in-hand with that family through mental health and addiction services.”
We have to be there, to protect our students, to pick up on the signs of drug use or to help them cope with the addiction of loved ones. Tell me: What’s your experience? Is addiction rampaging through your communities, and how are you and your school communities dealing with it?