The Opioid Crisis Hits College Campuses

by Arianna Siddiqui

SAN ANTONIO, TX — With thousands of young Americans dying every year, “opioid crisis” has become a household term. Opioids are now the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, and many of those Americans are college students. According to a survey of college students across the United States, 7 percent reported opioid abuse and 13 percent said they had misused painkillers in the past. With more comprehensive research scarce, the full impact of opioids on college students, especially those in Texas, remains unknown. In response, colleges in the midwest and across the country are implementing potentially life-saving programs to deal with opioid abuse on campuses.

Opioids are drugs that are synthetically and semi-synthetically created to imitate opium. Opioids range from the legal painkillers like oxycodone, codeine, morphine and fentanyl to illegal substances such as heroin. Opioids are prescribed to patients by their doctors for myriad reasons, including acute injury and chronic pain after surgery. However, this was not always the case.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the number of prescriptions for opioids has tripled since 1999; by 2012, doctors were writing approximately 259 opioids prescriptions per year. The new statistics become especially troubling with the release of a new study by the CDC. The study shows that opioid prescriptions for only eight or more days increased the chances of addiction to 13.5 percent, demonstrating the highly addictive properties of the drugs. Opioids are highly effective at treating pain. However, it takes a larger amount to achieve the same high over a long period of time. As a result, users who may have been prescribed opioids finding themselves trapped in a cycle of addiction while never breaking the law.

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Since the prescriptions of opioids have increased dramatically over the years, so have the number of people who have found themselves addicted to the drugs that were supposed to heal them. These people then often turn to heroin for a cheaper, and more dangerous, high with around 80% of heroin users abusing opioids first. This is killing people faster and faster, as heroin is often laced with fentanyl which is extremely powerful and lethal. It becomes no surprise that approximately 90 Americans are dying per day from opioids.

This has not gone unnoticed by the Trump administration. President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency in October of 2017 and called on Congress to consider 56 proposals to deal with the opioid crisis. These proposals focus on reserving federal funds for improving the effectiveness of addiction treatments and enforcing harsher punishments for opioid abusers. The plans also included a media campaign designed to prevent people, specifically teens, from ever taking opioids. Donald Trump described the program as “really tough, really big, really great advertising, so we get people before they start.” However, this does little to help twelve and a half Americans already abandoned in the trenches of addiction, nor does it release further federal funds.

College Campuses and the Opioid Crisis

Without support from the government, many universities are taking initiative as thousands of students suffer silently with addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “young adults are the biggest abusers of prescription opioid pain relievers” with opioid deaths among those twenty-four and younger doubling between 2005 and 2016. Unfortunately, young adults in college are not the exception. In fact, research has shown that competitive campuses are especially prone to opioid abuse due to easier access to prescription opioids. In reaction to these troubling – and rising – statistics, states like New York and Colorado are using state funding to advance research and education.

Maryland went a step further. That state now requires that universities offer drug prevention classes that address the risk of opioids. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has been a leader in the fight against opioids, going as far as offering specialized programs designed to aid students in the fight against addiction. Programs include moving students to overcome their addiction to non substance housing and putting them in contact with professionals who specialize in drug addiction. At Drexel University, this is furthered with the unique “Haven at Drexel” housing. This substance-free dorm is a place where students can eat, sleep and live under close supervision to avoid relapsing. The dorm is also opened to three other colleges in Philadelphia including University of Pennsylvania, Villanova and Temple University.

By contrast, Trinity University offers no programs that exclusively cater to students struggling with drug addiction. David Tuttle, Dean of Students at Trinity University, noted that there are no future plans to implement such programs. “Not at this time. This is an important issue nationally. We haven’t been as impacted on campus so our energy continues to be funneled toward other areas,” Tuttle said. Tuttle’s claim is supported by the lack of press coverage of opioids affecting Texas universities, and there remains little evidence of Texas students being impacted on a large scale by the crisis.

In light of the national and state-level trends, it is unclear how Trinity University administrators can claim the campus to be unaffected without accompanying data. When the issue of statistics was brought forth during a student government meeting, former student government president, Nick Santulli referred students to Trinity’s survey database. “Trinity does extensive surveying, go to them for information on opioid problems on campus,” Santulli said during an SGA meeting.

Trinity University primarily conducts surveys through the Office of Institutional Research which collects data for both “internal and external requests for information”. However, Diane Saphire, Associate Vice President of the Office of Institutional Research, said that the university does not conduct surveys relating to drug abuse, much less opioids. “The Institutional Research office has not conducted any survey about drug abuse” she stated in an email to The Contemporary. However, she added that it is “possible that such a survey was conducted by another office.” Trinity University does conduct a biennial review of Trinity’s alcohol and other drug prevention program. In the review statistics concerning the number of drug and alcohol violations and arrests are listed. However, data concerning the type of drugs are hidden behind vague classifications (Drugs, Drugs 2, Drugs 3) and only list the students who have been caught. The student handbook provides no further clarification.

Moreover, while the opioid crisis has been seemingly concentrated in the Midwest, experts believe Texas is not immune. In an interview with Texas Public Radio, Mark Kinzly, co-founder of the Texas Overdose Naloxone Initiative, cites the “250% increase” in synthetic opioid seizures along the Texas border. He also states that Texas is “currently… number two in the United States for healthcare costs associated with the opioid crisis ” and credits the lack of national attention to insufficient data collection of the epidemic.

Jonah Wendt, a senior at Trinity, is a campus leader for the organization Students for Opioid Solutions (SOS). The organization’s goal is to promote awareness of opioid overdose symptoms, report all related overdoses and deaths, and require campus police and residential staff to carry Naloxone. Naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan, is referred by SOS as an “antidote to opioid overdoses.” The medication medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose and generally comes in the form of an injection or nasal spray. In more and more states Naloxone is available without a prescription, and is, as of October 2017, also available in every Walgreens nationwide. Naloxone is so effective in preventing death from overdoses that many universities have fully embraced the drug. At the University of Texas, “Operation Naloxone” provides “overdose prevention and response education to students, health professionals, and the public to combat the opioid crisis” and includes information on how to obtain prescriptions and administer Naloxone.

Even though other universities have incorporated Naloxone into their campus policy, Wendt reports that the University’s Student Government Association (SGA) has struck down proposed legislation regarding Naloxone. The proposed resolution would have equipped Residential Advisors with Naloxone and would have required Trinity’s SGA to fund the project. According to Wendt, whose brother Manfred Wendt proposed the legislation, the rejection of the “Resolution on Opioid Abuse” had “more to do with biases toward the senator [Wendt] who proposed the legislation than the legislation itself.” However during the SGA meeting, Senators both voiced both support and criticism of the proposed legislation.

Senators debated the resolution in an SGA meeting held on Oct. 16 2017. Senator Simone Washington cited liability reasons for turning down the resolution to have RA’s carry Naloxone. “Having RA’s act as first responders in the case of an emergency is dangerous practice to authorize and would place immense pressure on RA’s,” Washington said. According to current SGA President Amulya Deva, this statement was supported by Stephanie Ackerman, the Assistant Director of Residential Life. Ackerman expressed concern that equipping RAs with would change the nature of their jobs and could be seen as a liability. Deva also emphasized financial reasons for turning down Wendt’s resolution. “We voted against the passing the resolution because the senator who drafted the resolution did not include details on the cost of the program… and had not previously discussed the resolution with the Residential Life department, checking the feasibility of requipping RAs with [Naloxone]”.

Deva also clarified that the proposed resolution involved SGA funding RAs to be equipped with Naloxone. As an alternative, SGA Senator Tyler Tinker suggested alternatives to Wendt’s proposal. Tinker opposed the resolution in favor for long-term solutions. “Based on our fairly clean history, we have a chance to set up preventative measures to protect us from crisis… Narcan, while lifesaving, is unfortunately not a solution. It is a temporary fix for a long term national issue,” Tinker said. Tinker proposed instead a Good Samaritan policy be implemented, where any students who call the police for a drug related incident will not face legal consequences. He also conveyed support for the education sanction attached to the Good Samaritan policy.

The opioid crisis has morphed into an opioid debate on Trinity’s campus. Equipping Residential Advisors with Naloxone remains controversial, and little data exists to support or dispute that there are Trinity students who struggle with addiction. With more and more people dying everyday, it becomes hard to imagine how this issue does not affect us. Opioids are no longer a geographical issue; they are not isolated in the Midwest, and it is ignorant and dangerous to pretend otherwise. In order to protect our students, we need to not only address the problem, but acknowledge it exists. At the very least, counseling and support programs must be available and known to students who struggle with hidden addiction. Data must be collected to understand how to properly address this problem instead of assuming it does not exist.

We live in a country where, for college students, a drug is more likely to kill you than a gun. No matter the campus, no matter the location, no matter the politics, that deserves attention.

Arianna Siddiqui is a first year student at Trinity University.

The cover photo above was taken by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. It is in the public domain.

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