I was sitting on a couch surrounded by my friends a few nights ago, when I was informed that many of the people in this crowded high school party were on “bars” – a nickname for Xanax – and had been combining them with alcohol. This can be very dangerous when abused, since the combination can slow down and even stop the user’s heartbeat. Yet over the past few years, I have noticed a large increase in the number of my peers who are trying such unsafe combinations.
Do they truly understand the risk associated with their actions? In many cases, the answer is no. My high school never talked to us about it, and so people allow the experiences of their friends to influence their decision in trying substances like bars. By watching my friends make choices like this, it has become clear to me that the high school health education has serious shortcomings that need to be addressed, and education reform is an integral part in ending the national opioid epidemic.
As prescription drugs and opioids are becoming more and more common across the United States, one must take a second to examine the impact that this prevalence of pills has on the adolescent population. There is no denying that over the past few years, opioid use has seen a significant increase among young people and adults. According to a national survey, heroin use has more than doubled among young adults aged 18 to 25 years old in the past decade. While teens may not be using opioids in high numbers, they see its effects as they are losing their relatives to the opioid epidemic. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, and the majority of Americans with problematic substance use start smoking, drinking or using other drugs before the age of 18.
The most effective way to combat these startling statistics is to use education to inform teens of the facts surrounding drug use. But unfortunately drug education is lacking where it would be most effective, in high schools across the country. The best known drug education campaign, D.A.R.E., preaches abstinence. Many students experience D.A.R.E in elementary school. They are exposed to scare tactics, including only talking only about the potential harmful side effects of drug use, in order to deter them from using drugs when they get older.
There is, therefore, no surprise that this system of education has shown no real impact on the rate of drug use in the country. Elementary school kids have only limited exposure to the drugs they are learning about and may be too young to properly understand the information they are being given. More emphasis should be put on educating high school students who do have exposure to drugs; in 2015 15% of twelfth-grade students reported using illicit drugs other than marijuana in the past year.
It’s important to understand that high school students are at a critical age where they are looking to form their own opinions about the world around them. Alcohol and other drugs are common in high school, and it is essential that students are properly educated about the facts surrounding them -- including what steps to take to reduce potential harms Many people are unaware about how preventable things such as drug overdose are, or how to help someone experiencing an overdose using something like a naloxone kit. With the knowledge of how to use drugs safely as well as how to help peers, teens will be able to make smarter and safer decisions as they enter adulthood.
Additionally, a form of open education where dialogue about drug use is purely fact based will hopefully create a population of informed parents who are more likely to talk about drugs in the same manner with their own kids. According to a 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, teens who consistently learn about the risks of drugs from their parents are up to 50% less likely to use drugs than those who don’t.
By providing comprehensive drug education to young people while their brains are still moldable, national drug use could decrease and students will find themselves more prepared for the future ahead of them.
Chiara Fontaine is an intern at the Drug Policy Alliance.