The opioid crisis in our nation is unprecedented. It has become so devastating that President Trump recently declared it a national emergency. “As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue,” he announced.  “It is time to liberate our communities from this scourge of drug addiction.  We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic. We can do it.”

Close to home, we are seeing the evidence of this emergency. According to Howard County police, they have responded to a total of 43 fatal opioid overdoses so far this year. That is up from 29 opioid deaths in 2016. In addition, there have been 138 non-fatal overdoses in which naloxone (“Narcan”) was used to revive the victims. This number is also up significantly from the number of cases in all of 2016.

While the devastating effects of the opioid epidemic seem to be at the front and center of our news reports constantly, there is one aspect of the problem which is frequently overlooked: its effect on our children and our schools. The number of infants born with complications due to maternal opioid addiction has skyrocketed, and the foster care system is now in crisis mode, challenged to absorb the number of children left behind in the wake of this emergency. Our schools are absorbing much of the pressure, with increased demands for mental health services and free lunches.

So how to stem the tide of this statewide emergency and protect the children of Howard County?

Our first line of resistance must be education. Many who begin taking opioids for pain have no idea how addictive these substances are. When such medications are prescribed, it can take as little as two months to become addicted; but very few are aware of the danger. Many fatal and near-fatal overdoses occur when heroin is mixed with fentanyl; but often victims are unaware that these substances are combined, or of how deadly this mix is.

Public schools in Maryland are now required by law to educate students about the dangers of opioids like heroin. This requirement also extends to universities that accept state funding.

The research shows that drug education in schools is highly effective in preventing drug use, in some cases cutting it in half. The most effective programs are evidence-based, interactive, and youth-oriented.

What might such a program look like? Here are some possibilities.

  • Police officers coming to speak about their personal experiences in responding to overdoses
  • Recovering addicts sharing their experiences
  • Pharmacists explaining the science behind drug addiction
  • Parents who have lost their children to opioid addiction giving students a first-hand look at how the problem directly affects their community

To preach to students about the dangers of drug use is ineffective. Our students have been hearing these messages for years, and can repeat them by rote. A more useful strategy is to bring the results of opioid addiction to vivid life in the minds of our students in a tangible and memorable way.

However, education needs to extend beyond our classrooms. It’s time to look for solutions to educate the public as a whole about the particular dangers of this type of addiction. Factual information about these dangers, combined with instruction from experts on alternative methods for pain management, will go far in our fight against this crisis.

We are fortunate that we already have access to substantial education and resources through a non-profit organization called HC Drug Free. This program has been around since 1995 and provides detailed information for teens, young adults, and parents on the dangers of drug use and the resources available to combat it.

As a community, we need to work to support our educators in their noble work of protecting our most precious resource from the ravages of a dangerous epidemic.

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