Opioid crisis: The 3 things your college-bound child needs to know

The statistics are scary no matter what – but they can be especially overwhelming for parents preparing to send their children to college.
by Julianne Pepitone /
Image: Oxycodone narcotic pain reliever
Oxycodone is a narcotic pain reliever.Education Images / UIG via Getty Images
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America is facing an opioid crisis and the facts are staggering. According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 116 people died every day from opioid-related overdoses in 2016. More than 11.5 million misused prescription opioids. And super-strong synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, are being passed off to unsuspecting users as less powerful drugs.

The statistics are scary no matter what – but they can be especially overwhelming for parents preparing to send their children to college.

Dr. Dave Campbell, a spine surgeon who has testified before Congress on the opioid crisis, understands the difficulty: “When combating drug use with high school kids, I always say it’s important to know who their friends are. But once they’re off to college, that isn’t always possible – we need to arm these college-bound kids with knowledge.”

But rattling off a bunch of statistics won’t do the job. Instead, Dr. Campbell recommends focusing on the basic facts about why opioid use is so dangerous – and empowering kids to share that information.

“Prescription” pills are not safer than street drugs

“There’s been a tendency for young people to believe a pill is safer. ‘It’s not like I’m snorting cocaine or injecting heroin,’” Dr. Campbell says. “That may have been true 15 years ago, but it’s not the case in 2018.”

That’s because the synthetic opioids that are on the rise are incredibly strong. Fentanyl, for example, can be as much as 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. Fentanyl accounted for nearly 46 percent of the 42,000 overdose deaths across the country in 2016, according to the American Medical Association.

“These are not the pills of decades ago,” Dr. Campbell says. “If you can help your child to understand that, they won’t treat it as no big deal if someone offers them something at a party.”

“Just one time” could be one time too many

Kids may think that just because a pill is in a prescription bottle and stamped like a legitimate medicine, it’s safe to consume. But thanks to widely available pill-stamping machines, it’s simple for people to create counterfeit pills. For example, some pills marketed as Xanax are in fact made with fentanyl – a difference that can be deadly.

“It’s Russian roulette,” Dr. Campbell says. “You have no idea what’s really in the pill, what it’s laced with, and what it might do to you.”

It’s your responsibility to look out not only for yourself, but for your friends too

Kids may bristle when they feel their parents don’t trust them to make good choices or feel they are trying to control their behavior, Dr. Campbell explains: “Taking the focus off them and explaining the importance of helping their friends is a subtle, nuanced approach that shifts the conversation from confrontational to empowering.”

While children shouldn’t be made to feel responsible for their friends’ ultimate actions, Dr. Campbell emphasizes that parents can still “deputize” their children to share the facts above.

“The opioid crisis is such a complex and heavy topic,” he says, “but if kids can understand the basic facts of just how dangerous these drugs are, they can make informed choices – and help their new friends to do the same.”

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