For years, students have been told to simply say no to drugs through repeated public service announcements and classroom presentations. However, research shows that this strategy is unsuccessful. Currently, the number of overdose deaths among teenagers have significantly increased.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the drug most responsible for overdose deaths since 2021 is fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. Many of those deaths were related to fentanyl-laced counterfeit prescription pills that were not sold in pharmacies. What became a problem for teens during 2021 has now followed them onto college campuses nationwide.
Experts believe that drug education focusing on harm reduction techniques can help keep people safe when using drugs and can even help save lives.
Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, a Professor at Stanford University and director of Stanford University’s REACH Lab, studies the understanding, prevention and reduction of substance abuse correlating with risky behaviors within teens and young adults.
Halpern-Felsher’s lab provides a high school curriculum course called ‘Safety First’, a class dedicated to harm reduction. The curriculum suggests that teens and young adults remain abstinent from drug use while also educating students on how to reduce their risk of addiction and death if they or their friends engage in drug use.
The professor educates her students from the medical benefits of drugs, to the dangers of recreational use and the risk it may inflict and how to respond and administer naloxone in the event of an overdose emergency.
According to a study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the Safety First curriculum showed a decrease in substance abuse amongst high school students.
Cameron Mcneely, the director of youth education for Overdose Lifeline, spoke at Perry Meridian High School on drug awareness. He presentented shared statistics on drug related deaths, explained the functions of opioids on the human body, identified how addiction is a disease – not a personal failure – and elaborated the importance of carrying naloxone.
To seem personable and relatable to students on this important matter, Mcneely shared a personal experience he had in college. He explained to students that he and his friend took some pills to unwind. Within a brief moment, he noticed his friend was sleeping yet struggling to breathe.
What he did not know then was that his friend was suffering from an overdose. Mcneely told the students that he called 911 and his friend was revived when emergency responders administered naloxone, also known as Narcan.
McNeely witnessed the miracle of naloxone saving his friend’s life from what could have been a fatal drug overdose.
At the time, Mcneely had no drug education in high school. Students were not taught how to drink safely, they were not aware of the risk of mixing drugs and alcohol together, how substances can affect the body differently and how it can simply kill you in an instant.
McNeely’s experience is more common than what people might think. Drug education across the U.S. is either outdated or not provided. According to a National Survey of Drug Use and Health in 2021, numbers showed that only 60 percent of 12-17 year olds reported that they heard or saw drug and alcohol prevention messaging in school. Yet, there is no way of tracking the type of drug education being offered in schools across the country. This shows that the “Just Say No” message is not working.
Studies conducted in the 1990’s and early 2000’s show that programs such as the Drug Abuse Resistance Education Program (D.A.R.E.) have little to no impact, especially when combating the opioid crisis amongst young adults and teens. Due to its failure, D.A.R.E. was rebranded in 2009 to a program called “Keepin’ it REAL.” However, the program does not offer harm reduction education for students that can minimize risks and dangers of harm if they engage in drug use.
Although school curriculums that offer harm reduction education relating to drug use can help save lives, it is not the remedy for a cure-all.
Halper-Felsher believes that schools alone are unable to solve the fentanyl crisis. The professor explains the solution to this opioid crisis requires a cultural shift. To be able to produce a cultural shift educators, families and communities need to have honest communication about drug use.
This article was reviewed by Chad Sabora. Chad Sabora is Vice President of Government and Public Relations at Haven Health Management. Formerly a Chicago prosecutor, Chad now devotes himself to helping individuals struggling with substance use disorder and their loved ones.