As the opioid epidemic has swept across the nation, proving it doesn’t discriminate against race, income or age, there has been a conversation visibly absent from schools and among young people about the dangers and addictive qualities painkillers, often prescribed by a doctor, can have.
But that is changing.
Rise Above Colorado, a drug prevention program that emerged from the Colorado Meth Project, now incorporates opioid abuse into its drug prevention campaigns, which have mostly focused on underage marijuana and alcohol consumption. And other organizations, such as Speak Now Colorado, are advising parents on how to talk to their kids about prescription drugs.
“In Colorado, (data shows) the larger rate of misuse in opioids is among 18-25 year olds, so if you want to prevent those outcomes you really need to start early,” said Kavitha Kailasam, the director of community partnership for Rise Above.
She said the move to incorporate education on the dangers of opioids in particular has been data-driven. Surveys conducted by Rise Above found that perceived risk of prescription pain relievers has decreased. In 2013, 66 to 80 percent of teenagers surveyed in southern Colorado said they perceived the risk of prescription opioids as “high.” In 2016 that perception of significant risk dropped to between 51 and 65 percent.
Maelah Robinson-Castillo, a Centennial High School student in Pueblo who works with Rise Above, said she doesn’t think a lot of the students she goes to school with are aware of how dangerous opioids can be.
“In a way, it’s kind of accepted,” she said, explaining that those drugs seem safer than others because they come with a doctor’s discretion.
Rise Above has mostly taken this approach to drug prevention: highlighting that a lot of a student’s peers don’t use drugs or consume alcohol. Kailasam said there is a misconception among young adults that use is more common than it is. According to a Healthy Kids Colorado survey from 2015, only 14 percent of those surveyed said they have taken prescription drugs without a prescription. In comparison, 59 percent said they’ve consumed alcohol and 38 percent say they’ve consumed marijuana.
But even with that data, there isn’t much more on the opioid epidemic as it relates to teenagers.
Alexis Ellis, a regional health connector for the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment, said she thinks that’s going to be changing in the future, but where the data gap has presented the biggest problem is in schools where drug prevention programs are largely based on data.
Robinson-Castillo has taken on her own prevention program, called “Centennial on the Rise.” It’s an event where students highlight what they are passionate about. At its core, the high school junior said it’s a way for students to prove that they’re more than the negative stereotypes adults sometimes assign to high school students in relation to drugs and alcohol.
But she’d like to see schools do more.
“Prevention can be looked at in different ways, by just having a youth-adult connection can help. For me, (it’s helpful) going to an adult and them having the resources so I can talk about prescription drugs,” Robinson-Castillo said. “In Pueblo we really don’t have that engagement piece. That’s a place where it’s lacking. We don’t have those mentors in our schools that have the resources if we do come across wanting to get help or wanting to seek guidance. I don’t think our teachers are trained in that.”
It’s not just the classroom. Some argue parents should do more to education their children on the dangers of prescription drugs. That can start with educating themselves.
When DeEtte Kozlow took her 17-year-old daughter in to have her wisdom teeth removed last year, the Douglas County mom was sure of one thing: her daughter would not take any kind of opioid for the pain following the procedure.
Kozlow said the nurse insisted on the prescription. She was told her daughter would absolutely need it for the pain and that it is normal to take a painkiller after a molar extraction. That was the problem for Kozlow, who said she eventually took the prescription she felt was being forced on her daughter and then ripped it up.
Her daughter was able to treat the pain just fine the following days with Tylenol and smoothies, Kozlow said. She was confident her daughter wouldn’t need the drugs — and she was right — but she doesn’t think other parents are as educated about the dangers painkillers pose for young people, or that a simple prescription for a normal procedure could be so addictive.
In 2016, Kozlow lost her best friend, Bobby Hawley, to a heroin overdose. He was 39, finishing a master’s degree at Regis University and, as Kozlow put it, a beacon of hope for other addicts he knew. Since his death, Kozlow helped start a non-profit organization in her best friend’s name, appropriately called “Bobby’s House” for his work in the addiction community. Kozlow said Bobby would often let people crash on a mattress at his house when they were going through withdrawal.
Bobby’s addiction started with painkillers, just like the ones Kozlow’s daughter would have taken after the wisdom teeth surgery.
For the previous decade he struggled with addiction, spending time in and out of rehab. His addiction was something Kozlow said she and the people close to him didn’t talk about a lot. But now she wishes that more people would talk about opioid addiction. It’s why she was so adamant about her daughter not taking any painkillers.
Kozlow said if other parents knew what a simple prescription could lead to, maybe they’d rip them up too.
“Parents can help stop this epidemic,” Kozlow said plainly. She describes the epidemic as an oil spill, and that to keep it from spreading it has to start with kids.
Kozlow said she doesn’t think parents are aware of the problem or that taking a prescription could eventually lead to addiction down the road, as it did for Bobby. Most parents probably have some type of opioid in their medicine cabinet, and then when it comes to their kids being prescribed some type of painkiller, parents don’t know what they’re taking.
Speak Now’s guide for parents — which Kozlow said is easy to follow and reference — is a start. It breaks down what opioids are, what their medical names are, what forms they take and why they’re addictive. The organization’s information paired with Rise Above’s alternative highlight has become a sort of two-pronged approach.
“We need to start paying attention,” she said. “We have to quit taking a pill for everything and cope.”
Kozlow can rattle off statistics about the opioid epidemic — that it’s surpassing the AIDS epidemic, that more than 100 people in the U.S. die from overdose each day — and has stories, too. Friends of Bobby’s who have relapsed have been admitted to the hospital only to be released with little help with recovery.
And there’s a lot to be done to address the epidemic, she said. But it could get a lot better with parents asking questions and educating kids even younger. The majority of addicts say they started using as teenagers.
That’s a statistic that has Kozlow convinced the epidemic can be stopped “from the bottom up.”