Sammy Hallal | Torrey Pines High School Senior
If you have been paying attention to the news, it is likely that you have heard about the opioid epidemic rapidly spreading through the U.S., with no sign of slowing down. A small pill has managed to take over lives, tear apart families, and even destroy entire communities.
A survey of leading public health experts by STAT, a national publication focusing on health and science journalism, predicted that up to 650,000 people could die of opioid overdoses over the next decade – almost as many deaths over the same time period as from breast cancer and prostate cancer. In 2015 roughly 33,000 opioid-related deaths occurred across America. These deaths result from prescription pain drugs like OxyContin, hydrocodone, and Vicodin; heroin; Fentanyl (both legally and illicitly manufactured), and other synthetic drugs.
“Drug use among students is not really uncommon,” Andrea, a student at Torrey Pines High School, said. “You don’t really see opioids as much as less serious drugs, but it is definitely still present at [Torrey Pines] and others in the district.”
This epidemic has reached virtually every area in the nation, even here at home. According to a study published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, since 2013 heroin abuse has been on an upward trend in San Diego. Among juvenile arrestees in San Diego County, the proportion reporting any illegal use of prescription drugs increased from 37% in 2011 to 44% in 2012, which is more than the increase among adults. Every year, the San Dieguito Union High School District sees 150-220 students in its drug prevention program after being caught with or under the influence of drugs.
“The biggest thing we have to talk about in the entire country is the opioid epidemic,” Joseph Olesky, an SDUHSD substance abuse counselor, said. “Heroin, fentanyl and narcotic prescription pills are still very much being used by our kids.”
This is a crisis that will continue to plague the U.S. unless we implement effective strategies to reverse the worst-case forecasts. STAT reports this would require “a major public investment in evidence-based treatment options and a concerted push among medical providers to control pain with non-narcotic therapies before trying prescription opioids.” Other strategies include improved prescription drug monitoring programs, medication-assisted treatment, naloxone (for emergency overdose treatment), and better law enforcement strategies. A big reason for the current trend is simple: it is a lot easier for Americans to get high than it is to get help. Only 10 percent of people impacted by substance use disorder seek treatment, according to a report by the Surgeon General of the U.S. Since the 1990s, pharmaceutical companies have continued to pour highly addictive painkillers into the country, fueling the problem. These drugs, however, are quite expensive, which is why many people turn to heroin once addicted, since it is a cheaper option.
“It’s really sad to see so many people being affected by opioid abuse,” Eve, a student at Cathedral Catholic High School, said. “It’s a problem that has been going on for far too long…however I am hopeful that the issue is finally gaining attention and being discussed on the national scale.” If we employ better strategies to combat this crisis, the “best-case” projections show fatal overdoses falling below 22,000 a year by 2027. Will there be 650,000 American opioid-related deaths over the next decade, or 22,000? The number depends on the public policy choices we make today.