Ministries, experts urge comprehensive approach to teen… | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Ministries, experts urge comprehensive approach to teen overdoses

As opioid overdoses rise, experts recommend a preventative approach over naloxone

A container of Narcan, a version of the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone Associated Press/Photo by Mark Schiefelbein

Ministries, experts urge comprehensive approach to teen overdoses

Jeremy Sutliff says drug addiction took 10 years of his life. He started smoking cigarettes when he was 13 years old, both to fit in with his peers and cope with the death of his younger brother. But cigarettes escalated to marijuana and then to opioids. Sutliff, who lives just outside of Minneapolis, said he barely graduated high school and was then in and out of jail and recovery centers.

Six years ago, Sutliff finally managed to break free and is now married and has a child. He found a career with one of the recovery programs he completed. He works as a youth peer support specialist for Know the Truth, a prevention program operated by the Minnesota Prevention and Recovery Alliance.

In that role, Sutliff visits schools and shares his story with students while also educating students on misconceptions surrounding drugs, how to better manage mental health, and how addiction can prevent them from reaching goals. “If one or two of you can hear my story and be like ‘I don’t want to be like that guy,’ that’s a win for me,” he said he often tells students.

As fentanyl overdoses among teens rise, schools grapple with how to respond. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overdose deaths rose 94 percent among youth ages 10-19 from 2019 to 2020. Government legislation addressing overdoses has focused on providing the opioid overdose antidote naloxone, but many advocates warn that educators, administrators, and parents should beef up prevention strategies before naloxone is even needed.

Naloxone, often referred to by the brand name Narcan, can reverse the respiratory symptoms of opioid overdoses through a nasal spray or injection. While the treatment only works temporarily, it buys time for more medical help to arrive. In October, the Biden administration urged schools across the country to purchase and carry naloxone. According to U.S. News and World Report, 33 states have laws allowing naloxone use in schools.

There is a place for naloxone—it saves thousands of lives, said Gary Blackard, CEO and president at Adult and Teen Challenge USA. But it’s just one spoke on a big wheel, and the final spoke at that, he added.

A long-term, comprehensive response is needed to address the issue, Blackard said. Schools, ministries, recovery programs, and churches all need to partner together to help vulnerable teens, and prevention programs that partner with schools are key to preventing teen addiction and stopping opioid overdoses.

Dr. Karl Benzio, a board certified psychiatrist and co-founder of Honey Lake Clinic in Greenville, Fla., said that relying on naloxone is like putting a hospital at the bottom of a cliff to catch someone who is already falling. The problem needs to be addressed before the person even starts to fall, he added.

Benzio recommends a broader approach to tackling opioid addiction and overdoses—naloxone doesn’t solve the root issue of the problem. Addictions often stem from underlying psychological issues, he said.

Many youth take fentanyl without realizing it. Drug dealers often add fentanyl into other drugs to increase potency, sometimes pressing it into pills that look like prescription opioids. The CDC partially attributes the rise in teen overdoses to counterfeit pills that users may not know contain fentanyl.

Some advocates tout the use of fentanyl test strips, which could allow users to ensure the drugs they take don’t contain the deadly synthetic opioid However, some states have criminalized these tests over concerns that they enable illicit drug use. Ultimately, Benzio said, it’s another method that doesn’t address the root causes of addiction.

Officials at Know the Truth, which works with more than 350 schools in Minnesota, claim students were five times less likely to try substances after hearing the program’s presentation. The organization sends speakers like Sutliff and puts peer support programs in schools, said Elle Braland, student engagement manager at Know the Truth. Their program gives students a space in which to safely learn about drugs and addiction.

“These are heavy topics, right? … Students may not have somebody in their life where they can ask these questions,” Braland said. “That’s something that we really focus on in the classroom … just kind of creating that atmosphere. It’s OK to ask questions. It’s OK to talk about these things because, really, knowledge is power.”

Danny Huerta, vice president of parenting and youth at Focus on the Family, said that deep and genuine relationships can help prevent addiction and overdoses. Relationships with family are the first line of defense in prevention, and next are relationships with teachers, coaches, pastors, and other adults.

These relationships are critical at school, where students essentially have a second home, he said. Huerta worked for more than five years in school districts as a clinical psychologist and observed that schools that fostered caring cultures better supported students’ emotional health.

“The schools that had more of that caring environment, an environment where a student felt important to the teachers and not just another number—it made a difference,” Huerta said. “Even if there was a home that was struggling, having that environment was another layer of relationship that was important in that child’s life and development.”

In these relationships, adults need to talk openly and honestly with youth about drug use and overdoses, Huerta added. Often they avoid the topic out of shame or fear that it will get teens curious about drugs.

“That’s a myth that if you start talking about it early, kids are going to get curious and get sucked into it,” Huerta said. “When, really, it’s actually about equipping. The world is going to talk about it anyway, so you got to give them truth and equip them.”

Liz Lykins

Liz is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

Sign up to receive Compassion, WORLD’s free weekly email newsletter on poverty fighting and criminal justice.

Please wait while we load the latest comments...