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School substance use prevention efforts are crucial. The question is how to do it

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By ALEX LI

In 2021, fentanyl was identified in more than three-quarters of adolescent overdose deaths, but experts say schools are slow to adapt their prevention efforts. (Photo/bridgesward- Pixabay)

Alex Li was a health reporter with Side Effects Public Media based at WFYI in Indianapolis, Ind. Li was a young and bright journalist with contagious passion and commitment to his job. He was a beloved part of the newsroom. Li died last December and this was his last story.

The majority of adults with substance use disorders start during their adolescent years. That’s why experts say prevention efforts in schools are paramount, but many schools struggle with implementation.

According to a survey by the Education Week Research Center in 2022, 67% of school health workers say that dealing with students who are vaping and using alcohol, marijuana, or opioids is “a challenge” or “a major challenge.”

The moment to address a gap in school prevention could not be more prime for action, experts say, as more young people between the ages of 10 and 19 have died of overdoses across the U.S. The driving factor behind those deaths is fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid.

“In the era of fentanyl, with experimentation, plenty of kids die because they just don’t know that that’s a risk,” said Chelsea Shover, an epidemiologist who studies substance use at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Even a tiny amount of fentanyl can kill. In 2021, the synthetic opioid was identified in more than three-quarters of adolescent overdose deaths.

Some experts pointed out that children may purchase pain medication or prescription stimulant pills on social media, which –– unbeknown to them –– can be counterfeit and laced with fentanyl.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has seized a record 86 million fentanyl pills in 2023, which already exceeds last year’s total of 58 million pills.

Shover said, with this rapidly changing landscape, schools are slow to adapt.

“Your [school’s] alcohol and tobacco curriculum can probably stay pretty much the same. But your curriculum around opioids and overdose and street drugs needs to be updated to what’s actually happening,” she said.

Prevention sometimes takes a backseat

Schools often have more robust processes in place to react when a student is known to use substances – prevention often takes a back seat.

The goal of these prevention efforts, experts say, should not be to tell kids to say no to drugs. Ideally, they would provide young people with facts about the health, social, and legal concerns that come with substance use and hone social skills and competencies that help kids cope with stressors.

Research suggests that social influences are central and powerful factors in both promoting and discouraging substance use among adolescents, and that many of them turn to substances to cope with anxiety or stress and some do it when they’re bored.

“When you’re talking about substance use prevention, what you’re really talking about is helping children develop the skills and competencies to withstand the pressures and to be able to prevent them from starting to use substances in the first place, or at least, knowing where to turn and those kinds of skills get built up very early,” said Ellen Quigley, vice president at the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation. The foundation provides funding to 159 Indianapolis Schools through its Prevention Matters initiative.

Students who are not engaged in school or fail to develop or maintain relationships and those who fail academically are more likely to engage in substance use, one study found. Some of the crucial skills to teach as part of prevention efforts include conflict resolution, how to make friends, and how to deal with bullying, Quigley said.

Then, comes the messenger.

Experts say kids may be reluctant to ask for help from people who can get them in trouble like teachers and police officers. A report from the National Council for Mental Wellbeing found that only 17% of teenagers said they trust teachers or other educators. The report suggests that students have more trust in doctors, nurses and nonprofit workers.

“Drug education, it’s partly to tell students about what’s going on, and what tools are there, what risks there are, but it’s also to open a conversation for students who are struggling either themselves with substance use, or their friends are,” Shover at UCLA said.

Limited resources stand in the way

There has been substantial progress in developing and studying prevention programs for adolescent drug use, but challenges to effective implementation persist.

“While there was a lot of attention to treatment, which makes a lot of sense, there weren’t a lot of resources available for prevention,” Quigley said.

Integrating prevention programs requires time and money, which some schools say they don’t usually have –– especially in lower-income communities where resources overall are limited.

One place where this is evident is Logansport School Corporation, the largest school district in Cass County, Ind. It’s a rural part of the state that is around an hour and a half north of Indianapolis, with a below-average income level. Major employers in the county are mostly manufacturing plants and meat processing facilities. Compared to most other rural communities in Indiana, the county has a large immigrant population.

Over the past few years, it has seen a steady increase in opioid use.

The school district has leaned in on peer mentorship as an approach for prevention and support to those who use substances, said Logansport School District Superintendent Michele Starkey.

“We know that those positive relationships are key to the success of students. And so that’s something that we have identified as being a huge need,” she added.

Experts say peer mentorship is a promising approach.

But the school district has had to halt other programs due to lack of funding, said Jennifer Miller, the principal of the Junior High.

“There used to be a program throughout the county that would specifically address substance abuse, vaping with the junior high level kids. And so, that doesn’t exist anymore. But there is such a need for it,” Miller said.

Tens of millions of dollars are coming to states across the country. It’s part of a major settlement with opioid manufacturers and distributors for their role in the opioid epidemic. There’s also federal and state funding available.

Logansport school district and 4C Health, a federally qualified healthcare center, got a million dollars in federal funding a few months ago.

Lisa Willis-Gidley, the Chief Revenue Officer at 4C Health, said they depend on such grants because prevention programs are not covered by insurance. Still, she says implementing effective programs can be a challenge.

“Schools don’t have a ton of time,” she said. “They’ve got to focus on their goals and their academics. And so, you have to look at can we give them these pieces of valuable material in a manner that’s not going to be totally disruptive to their academic goals and performance?”

Experts say federal and state legislation can help set standards for substance use education and ensure enough funding for schools that need it.

One of the sources in the story works for Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation, which is one of several financial supporters of WFYI. We interviewed her using the same journalistic standards we use with all our sources. 

Side Effects Public Media is a health reporting collaboration based at WFYI in Indianapolis. We partner with NPR stations across the Midwest and surrounding areas — including KBIA and KCUR in Missouri, Iowa Public Radio, Ideastream in Ohio and WFPL in Kentucky.

Copyright 2024 Side Effects Public Media. To see more, visit Side Effects Public Media.

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