Typically, when people hear about a drug overdose in town, they conjure up images of a panhandler they recently saw begging for money, wearing grungy clothes and a vacant expression.
Not too many people envision the overdose victim as a baby-faced freshman sitting in class at the local high school. So imagine the collective shock when Brattleboro Union High School parents received an email last week about “two separate medical emergencies on campus involving the use of substances possibly laced with fentanyl.”
School officials haven’t released the ages of the students involved, so we don’t know for certain if they were freshmen, but that it’s within the realm of possibility is horrifying enough. Many of us either know or have young teens of our own — children who aren’t even old enough to drive yet — who are directly or indirectly exposed to this scourge on our society. In a tight-knit community like this, if you don’t know the students involved, then you at least know someone who does.
Fortunately, both students received immediate medical care and are reportedly doing well. In one case, school officials say the student self-reported the incident, and in the second case, another concerned student reported that something was off with their classmate. School nurses responded quickly to both incidents.
This awareness and quick response likely saved these students’ lives, but others have not been so lucky.
According to a recent study from Quote Wizard, an insurance industry resource that reports on health, housing and other trends, 253 people died from an overdose in Vermont over the last year. That’s a 21 percent increase compared to the previous year and the fifth highest increase nationwide. Overdose deaths are up 4 percent nationwide.
The Vermont Department of Health reports that opioid related overdoses among Vermonters under 18 years old are relatively rare. According to state data for the past three years, there have been fewer than six EMS calls to K-12 schools in response to a suspected overdose involving opioids. But as spokesperson Ben Truman said, “Even one is too many.”
Also, consider this statistic from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network: 9 out of 10 people who abuse or are addicted to nicotine, alcohol or other drugs began using these substances before they were 18. What’s more, people who began using addictive substances before age 15 are nearly seven times likelier to develop a substance use problem than those who delay first use until age 21 or older. Every year that substance use is delayed during the period of adolescent brain development, the risk of addiction and substance abuse decrease.
To their credit, interim Principal Cassie Damkoehler and her team are taking the appropriate steps to meet this challenge head-on. They gathered students together for a schoolwide assembly on Friday afternoon to have an open and frank discussion, and then immediately notified parents through an email, encouraging families to have an open dialogue with their students and reach out to the school for support if they are unsure of what to say.
“I think it’s an important dialogue,” Damkoehler told the Reformer. “Not talking about it doesn’t fix the issue at all.”
Meanwhile, the school’s student assistant program counselor, Ricky Davidson, constantly offers training, support and information to help counter substance use problems. He and school nurses are credited with coming up with a way to talk about the incidents in meetings as a school community.
“We have resources that we are happy to share,” Damkoehler wrote to families. “It really does take a village to support our students.”
We could not agree more. And we echo Damkoehler’s call for everyone to talk to your sons and daughters about the dangers of substance use, especially for the developing brain, and the specific danger of fentanyl, which can kill in a single 2-milligram dose. Talking with our kids is one way to stay connected to them and their friends, and probably the best way to know when something is “off” with our youth.
If you need help in talking with your kids about substance use, visit vthelplink.org or call 802-565-LINK.
October is National Substance Abuse Prevention Month. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) has compiled a list of resources for parents and caregivers, children and teens, mental health providers, child welfare workers, law enforcement professionals, educators and school staff, and policy makers. Go to https://www.nctsn.org/resources/public-awareness/national-substance-abuse-prevention-month.
Or contact the National Drug Helpline at call 844-289-0879 or visit https://drughelpline.org/drug-addiction-hotline/.