Changing language and opening up conversations: Educating youth about fentanyl and the danger it poses
Part 3 in a series
When Maggie Seldeen first started High Rockies Harm Reduction, she knew she wanted to focus a significant portion of her efforts on adolescents.
“I am particularly passionate about working with adolescents in the hopes that no one ever has to go it alone like I did, that no child ever need lose a parent to an overdose and vice versa,” Seldeen said.
Not only is drug education more impactful at a younger age, but with the rising prevalence of fentanyl, there is a heightened risk of overdoses with adolescents due to the rising prescription and party pill culture.
Part III: Educating youth about fentanyl and the danger it poses
“Educating youth and adults on the dangers of both illicit and prescription drugs, and the resources we have to combat overdose, can greatly altar the current trajectory of overdose rates,” Seldeen said.
“Harm reduction is a concept that accepts the reality that some individuals will use drugs and we want to give them the tools to stay safe. Providing medically accurate information in an authentic, nonjudgmental way can also work to undo much of the damage done by the DARE campaign and the War on Drugs, which only seems to have exacerbated substance abuse,” she added.
Much like the curriculum and education efforts around things like mental health and suicide, drug education has undergone significant shifts in recent years in an attempt to break down stigmas and bring about better results.
The evolution of drug education
The state of Colorado establishes new health and physical education standards every six years, the first of which were established in 2009 and the most recent in 2018. These standards include some guidance for how schools should teach students about drugs — in addition to other health-related subjects like eating habits, physical wellness, violation prevention, social-emotional wellness and more.
However, even with these standards, districts and schools have a lot of flexibility. The state encourages districts to align their curriculum with their standards and to weave in local data and resources.
According to Assistant Superintendent Katie Jarnot, Eagle County Schools’ weaves its drug education into its counseling and wellness frameworks but does not currently have a district-wide specific curricular resource.
Right now, the district is in the process of adopting a social-emotional learning curricular resource, which “emphasizes decision making and healthy choices,” she added. The new resource will be used in all K-8 buildings.
Jamie Hurley, the health and physical education content specialist at the Colorado Department of Education, said that the biggest change between the first and second iteration of these standards was shifting toward a model that helps students build their skills.
“You’re looking at getting students to use valid and reliable information to make healthy decisions,” Hurley said. “It is a broader, whole child approach, but it’s also a broader skills approach that we want to be building and those skills are built into our standards.”
This approach represents a shift from the former drug education programs, such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, which relied on scare tactics to educate about drugs.
“Scare tactics don’t really work in terms of changing behaviors,” Hurley said. “In health we’re either looking to change an unhealthy behavior, continue a positive behaviors or in some cases delay use.”
And while research has shown that these scare tactics weren’t actually effective in preventing use, Seldeen noted that the language of DARE is now more relevant than ever with the introduction of fentanyl.
“The rock in the hard place that we’re in now is the DARE drug classes didn’t work but that language is sort of accurate now. One pill can kill and somebody doesn’t need to be an addict or even a drug user to overdose because they might not know what’s in their drugs,” Seldeen said. “That’s the reality of the situation we’re in.”
However, there’s one big flaw with the thinking behind DARE and similar tactics, she said.
“With DARE — and the methodology and the abstinence only education — we assume that kids are not going to do it because we told them not to,” she said. “I think it’s the opposite, I think we need to assume that they are going to do this, even though we told them all the risks. That’s why, for me, it’s about providing the tools and resources for people who do choose to use so we don’t have to lose unnecessary life.”
Moving forward, Seldeen said that educators, parents and adults having these conversations should rely on medically-accurate information and not necessarily on scare tactics.
“Kids want medically accurate information and if they don’t get that from their schools or from their parents, they will find somebody that has it,” she said. “So, if they’re not getting it from their schools and they’re getting it from someone else, then we still don’t know if they’re getting medically accurate information or not.”
Utilizing a new approach
Drake Brown is a coach, teacher, department chair and equity coordinator at Eagle Valley High School. At the school he teaches health, wellness and AMP classes, which includes drug education.
In Brown’s 10 years in education — the last seven of which he’s spent at Eagle Valley —he’s seen the shift in drug culture that has coincided with fentanyl’s rise in prevalence.
“There has been a shift in the culture surrounding drugs since COVID,” Brown said. “I am surprised at the kinds of drugs that some kids are exposed to and have access to. If I was a community member that wasn’t having conversations with kids, I would probably assume that kids were experimenting with nicotine, maybe marijuana and drinking. But there are kids that are doing molly and cocaine and there’s more exposure to some of those more intense drugs than I thought.”
Not only that, but Brown has seen a shift in the perceptions of drug use among students and their peer groups. Now, he said students perceive their peers to be using more drugs and alcohol than when he first started teaching.
He also added that this perceived use is higher than the use shown in data from surveys like the Healthy Colorado Kids Survey.
“In regards to data collected from the Healthy Kids Colorado survey, our kids report to us that students under-report their use, resulting in a lack of trust with this data,” Brown said. “Basically, kids perceive drug use and abuse among their peers to be high even when data that shows otherwise is presented to them. They don’t trust the surveys they’re given, and they think kids underreport.“
This trend, he added, is mirrored in other drug use data and surveys as well, not just the Healthy Colorado Kids Survey.
In the last two years, he’s also shifted his approach around teaching about drugs.
“Right now, we’re trying a skills-based approach to teaching all those standards. To keep it around drugs and alcohol, we’re trying to help kids make good decisions, good, healthy decisions,” Brown said.
Previously, he said they were using an “old school” program that had students going through and acting out scenarios.
“We felt that students were not being very open and honest with their responses and when we moved toward this skills-based approach, we’re actually able to have more authentic conversations with students, which is what we’re hoping for,” Brown said.
Now, he added, he tries to establish a strong rapport of trust with students so that they feel comfortable opening up and speaking honestly in the classroom.
“What I hear a lot of with these conversations with kids is, they want to talk, they want to feel heard, they want a voice and it’s really up to us as educators to create an environment where they feel like they’re able to do that,” Brown said.
Overall, with this new approach, Brown said he attempts to weave drug education into every day conversations and topics around health and wellness rather than have individual drug units.
As an example, he said the class spends some time learning about the different parts and functions of the brain. And now, as part of this unit, the discussion includes how drug use can impact the different brain functionalities.
This brain unit also teaches the students how to care for their brains and how to make healthier choices.
“We teach how to analyze influences on health behaviors, using interpersonal communication for health and wellness, making decisions that improve health outcomes; setting goals for a health-enhancing lifestyle, managing oneself to better health, and becoming an advocate for their own health,” Brown said. “We also practice meditation, mindfulness and breathing exercises.”
This is moving toward a “whole-person” approach to drug education, which includes helping students develop positive coping skills, which can help lead students away from drug use in the first place.
“I think if we can look at drugs as more of an attempt to cope with problems rather than this act of defiance. Sometimes we think of teenagers as these monsters, but they’re not. They’re just people and oftentimes they make decisions for themselves that aren’t good for themselves, or the people around them or for their community because they don’t understand how else to do it,” Brown said.
Rather, in being preventative rather than reactive, Brown suggested it would be better to help students find a new passion or hobby and to develop healthy habits like exercising and eating well.
For teaching some of these healthy habits and coping mechanisms, the schools also rely on local community partners and resources to complement the education. This includes organizations like Bright Future Foundation, which does hot spot mapping around safety in school; SpeakUp ReachOut, which helps with suicide prevention and healthy coping mechanisms; Starting Hearts, which teaches how to respond to cardiac arrest; and the Red Ribbon Project, which teaches sex education; and more.
This is something that Seldeen also believes in as a harm reduction measure for adolescents. Much like the health standards have evolved to teach skills, Seldeen said that drug education needs to evolve to include teaching coping mechanisms to students as well.
“Alcohol and drug use and abuse is itself an unhealthy coping mechanism that many of us learned from our families and was further conditioned by our culture,” she said. “Teaching healthy coping mechanisms, especially early on and during development, can greatly reduce the risk that individuals will engage in unhealthy substance use, because they will have better tools to cope with reality.”
This, Seldeen added, also includes teaching about forming healthy relationships and improving self-esteem.
“If young people feel good about themselves, have positive, supportive relationships, and are connected to their communities in a positive way, they will be less likely to give into peer pressure in regard to drugs and alcohol,” Seldeen said. “Even having just one positive protective factor can make a huge difference in a child’s life.”
Opening up the conversation on fentanyl
While the 2018 revision of the standards did add a number of grade-level expectations around prescription drugs, the current Colorado standards on drug education do not mention fentanyl. The reason being, Hurley said, is that in the years between standards “there’s a chance that the drugs kids are using are going to change,” and being less specific allows for more fluidity over time.
Brown said that fentanyl has been coming up in his health courses since around 2018. Initially, he said the topic came up when Starting Hearts was in the classroom.
“One of the instructors for that program is a retired firefighter who had responded to many cardiac emergencies stemming from fentanyl overdoses in Eagle County,” Brown said. “After hearing this, we decided to talk to students about fentanyl more intentionally.”
Through this, Brown said that while most students have heard of fentanyl, most don’t know what it is initially, nor why it’s so dangerous and how the danger is exacerbated by its hidden presence in a number of drugs.
“Students know fentanyl is bad for their health after they learn about it, but their failure to recognize that marijuana and other drugs are being laced with fentanyl is alarming,” Brown said. “From these conversations, it’s also become overwhelmingly apparent to me that kids have access to a plethora of drugs if they choose to use them. There are adults in our county providing kids with access to dangerous drugs and until the adults in our county change their own behavior, the youth of our county are in danger of being exposed to fentanyl and other harmful drugs.”
This realization is something that Amy Hermes, an Eagle County based professional counselor and addiction counselor, witnessed first-hand through her son attending college.
“What’s happening is we know that kids, regardless of their age, but especially when they get to college, they’re experimenting with more substances, more party drugs in particular; they’re buying dirty drugs and the drugs are laced and they’re unknowingly consuming fentanyl, probably most of the time, but the problem is, you don’t know which pill is going to have too much,” Hermes said.
Even still, she said there’s not much education or conversation around the danger fentanyl poses, she said.
“It’s really senseless that kids are not being informed of really the dangers of just substance use, because pretty much fentanyl can be laced into pretty much any sort of substance now,” Hermes said. “The last time I was on campus and on the backs of the doors, you close the door and there’s always a poster about ‘What’s happening if someone is dying from alcohol poisoning” or it has an illustration and that’s how you treat the person but that’s as far as it goes.”
“This huge crisis is occurring and they’re just pretending like it’s not happening.”
For Hermes, moving forward means having more open and transparent conversations — specifically around fentanyl and the immense threat it poses.
“We have to start having these conversations just to crack the door open,” Hermes said. “What would it be like to have more transparent conversations and create safer spaces for kids to talk about this?”
This, she said, starts with laying the groundwork for having honest and open conversations between adults — be it parents, teachers, coaches, etc. — and kids, without judgment. Starting these conversations means having better information and approaching these conversations with curiosity rather than fear, Hermes said.
“It’s so hard not to approach these conversations with our own judgments and our own experiences. Things are really different for younger generations, and we can’t relate with what’s going on now, it is different,” Hermes said. “We have to be curious and we have to address the fear that comes up for us that causes us to either be defensive or accusatory or condemning.”
Part of removing these judgments, she added, includes not isolating this as an addict’s problem or assuming that it won’t ever apply to you.
“The fentanyl crisis is a shared, public health problem, affecting those who are accidentally and unintentionally overdosing,” she said. “It’s everyone’s problem.”
As such, these conversations should occur whether parents think there kids are, or would ever, try drugs.
“This is a terrible game of roulette and regardless of how many times a persons uses, there’s always a risk — whether it be a one time thing, or a misuse issue,” Hermes said.
In having and starting these conversations, Kala Bettis, the outreach operations Manager at Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, emphasized the importance of kids hearing the truth — no matter how scary — from a trusted adult.
“It’s important to tell our children the truth and if they’re old enough to ask the question, they’re old enough to receive that age-appropriate answer,” Bettis said. “It’s important to get ahead of what we know and what we see with culture today and what our children are exposed to via social media and on their phones. It’s best to learn it from a trusted adult, especially those that know them.”
Mountain Youth is hosting a free community event at Colorado Mountain College in Edwards on Thursday, April 14, starting with a dinner at 5:30 p.m. followed by a discussion at 6 p.m. featuring three community speakers. This forum seeks to destigmatize pill culture and fentanyl and address the “this doesn’t relate to me” attitude that exists. Attendees will also take away the best techniques for preventing drug misuse, overdose, and disease and learn how individuals at all levels can help combat our current public health crisis.
About the speakers
Amy Hermes is a licensed professional counselor and licensed addiction counselor who is trained to serve those struggling with both mental health and/or substance-related issues with a trauma informed approach.
Maggie Seldeen battled her own addictions for years and now wants to give back to the community that created her. Maggie combines her life experience and passion for social justice in dealing with persons who have a history of substance use.
Carole Bukovich lost her son to a pill laced with fentanyl in 2021. Carole is a beloved Eagle County resident who raised a family here and wants to share the message that the fentanyl crisis has reached our community. She wants to share her story so that no parent has to experience this loss.
This, she added, builds a rapport of trust and safety with kids as well.
“Being able to have honest conversations structured around health promotion is crucial for destigmatizing the shame of addiction, instead empowering those ready to make positive change,” Bettis said.
As a community, starting to have more open conversations will also help lead the way and begin to destigmatize around drug use as well as harm reduction measures, all of which can help to reduce the looming threat of fentanyl and overdoses in Eagle County. Which is why Mountain Youth is playing a part in getting the conversation going.
On Thursday, April 14, the organization is hosting a presentation at Colorado Mountain College and via Zoom on the fentanyl crisis featuring Hermes, Bettis and Carole Bukovich. To register, visit MountainYouth.org.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.