Higher Education Gets a Handle on Opioid Abuse

The goal of higher education is to prepare students of all ages to improve their lives, contribute to their communities, and elevate their own awareness of the world around them. Sadly, part of what students must contend with in the world around them is the reality of an opioid abuse epidemic. The higher education community must be part of the solution.

Opioid-related overdose deaths, involving both prescription and illicit medicines, have risen over the past few years, now taking 115 American lives every day. It has become clear that no community — and no campus — is immune from the opioid epidemic. In fact, about one in 10 undergraduates misuse prescription painkillers, according to a survey by The Ohio State University. It is a problem that we must work together to rapidly address.

That is why the University of Rio Grande and Rio Grande Community College is glad to have a national partner organization, Allied Against Opioid Abuse (AAOA), on our side. AAOA, in partnership with regional higher education institutions, held a prevention-focused event on May 31 attended by area college administrators and faculty. It was an opportunity to put our heads together about how to establish programs on campus to combat opioid abuse, be part of students’ continuum of care and reach out to our communities.

It was inspiring to realize how much we can do to help our students become informed, responsible healthcare consumers, who understand the rights, risks and responsibilities of opioid use. This includes educating them about prescription opioids, the dangers of addiction and overdose, the importance of asking their healthcare provider questions, and being an engaged patient. Too many times an individual receives a prescription without a complete understanding of the medication, its risks and potential alternatives.

But the engagement should not stop once patients receive a prescription, they also have a responsibility to safely use, store and dispose of these medicines. Embracing this responsibility and safeguarding their pain medication will prevent future instances of misuse and abuse.

This knowledge of our responsibilities as patients and caregivers will be of great value whenever students or their family members need medical care, particularly if it involves pain management.  Our students can serve as resources to parents and other family members navigating their healthcare options, spreading the influence of our efforts into our communities. By educating themselves, students can be champions and advocates for safe prescription drug use among their family and friends.

Each person we reach will be able to more safely handle opioid pain medicines, should they need them. At a time when 50 percent of Americans who misused prescription painkillers got the medication they had mostly recently misused from someone they know, it is critical that we encourage secure storage and prompt disposal practices.

At Rio, students have finished finals and are enjoying a break. Thanks to AAOA, when they return for a few credits over the summer or rejoin us in the fall, we will greet them with new initiatives to address opioid misuse here on campus and also in their communities.  When students leave our campuses, they will do so armed with essential knowledge about prescription opioid safety, which they can both use and share for the betterment of their own lives and that of their communities.

Michelle R. Johnston, Ph.D. is the president of the University of Rio Grande and Rio Grande Community College and can be reached at mjohnston@rio.edu.

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