How is the opioid crisis affecting students in the US?
Universities are putting measures in place to reduce opioid addiction in the US. Souce: Shutterstock

The gritty opioid crisis currently afflicting the US is a stark contrast to the romantic images of hot sunny days sat on campus and summer road trips with your friends.

Opiate abuse doesn’t always come to mind when you think about studying in the US, but between seven and 12 percent of students across the nation admitted to recreational use of opiates in 2016, with two-to-three percent claiming it also led to taking heroin, according to the American College Health Association (ACHA) report. This compares to 25 percent of the entire US population who claimed to have taken opiates in the past two years as of 2017.

Opioid addiction at leading universities is incredibly rare according to Angela Janis, Director of Psychiatry and Co-Director of Mental Health Services, at the University of Wisconsin Madison, reported Inside Higher Ed.

According to a 2016 survey at the University of Wisconsin, 55 students, or 0.8 percent of the campus population, reported having a substance-use disorder. Of that group of 55 students, 76 percent had an alcohol-related disorder, while only 5.4 percent had issues with opioid misuse.

The opioid crisis was initially sparked in the 1990s when pharmaceutical companies reassured US doctors that medicinal opioids were safe to prescribe as painkillers.

Fast forward 20 years and 80 percent of heroin users have become dependant on prescribed opioids, with 33,000 people losing their lives to an opioid overdose in 2015, according to Drug Abuse.

The risk of international students becoming dependent on opioids is relatively low, as doctors have stopped prescribing the substance in an attempt limit damage being caused.

Recent research has also revealed that less educated people are more at risk of opiate addiction and potential overdose, possibly due to lower qualities of life and manual labour that is more likely to warrant painkiller prescriptions, reported Inside Higher Ed.

The ACHA has put in place specific guidelines to advise universities on student pain management and addiction recovery. The guidelines encourage universities to explore other treatments for chronic and acute pain, while also discussing the risk of dependency and overdose.

“Colleges definitely have an obligation to address the opioid epidemic as it manifests on their campuses,” said Beth DeRicco, Director of Higher Education Outreach at Caron Treatment Centers, according to Inside Higher Ed.

“While a small percentage of students misuse pain relievers, the danger of opioids and the way in which use has risen makes it an incredible concern.”

Universities are also encouraged to train staff to distribute naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug.

Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts rolled out a public-access naloxone program in September to ensure students had access to the reversal drug in emergencies. The university installed 50 defibrillator boxes in campus buildings, including all 11 residence halls, reported Inside Higher Ed.

Other colleges have combined naloxone prescription with preventative measures to take a full-bodied approach to tackling the issue.

Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in North Carolina has implemented a prevention and treatment scheme which includes campus officers having access to naloxone, the locks on single-stall restroom doors being changed and staff training on signs of opioid use, according to Inside Higher Ed.

DeRicco said: “We need to give students access to support, recovery. A comprehensive approach is so important.”

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