Why Delaware believes schools, parents are key to preventing more overdoses among kids

Slipping grades. Missed classes. Inexplicable vomiting and nausea. A sudden stoppage in brushing teeth.

All of these are potential signs of addiction among young people — signs that Delaware state officials urged parents to be on the lookout for as fatal youth overdoses continue to rise.

While recent survey results show lower self-reported drug use rates among high school students in Delaware, experts said a decreased concern about using prescription drugs without a prescription shows the need for greater intervention and education, particularly in schools.

“Students spend an average of 1,000 hours each year in school, so we know that schools need to be an active partner in helping our kids and their families navigate the changing landscape of substance abuse,” said Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Holodick at a community briefing Friday.

The new data comes from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is taken every other year by a random representative sample of students enrolled in district, charter and “alternative” schools in Delaware, as well as by many students nationwide. The anonymous survey asks about everything from seatbelt usage to physical activity and is analyzed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among the Delaware students surveyed, 6% said they’d taken prescription pain medicine without a doctor’s prescription or differently than how a doctor told them to use it in the past month, and only 58% think their friends think using prescription drugs without a prescription is very wrong.

“Knowing about risks is crucial to supporting school community programs, communication campaigns and other prevention efforts,” Brittingham said.

Fentanyl remains huge problem in Delaware

One of the main risks — and one of the primary causes of overdoses among all age groups — is the presence of fentanyl in drugs, often unbeknownst to the user. The highly potent synthetic drug has become increasingly common in counterfeit prescription pills, which the Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows are more commonly used than opioids like heroin by young people.

Like adults, fatal overdose deaths among youth have increased dramatically in recent years, with most involving opioids like fentanyl.

OVERDOSE DEATHS:A record 447 Delawareans died of overdoses. What we learned about them, their deaths.

Median monthly overdose deaths rose by 109% between 2019 and 2021 for youth between the ages of 10 and 19, according to the CDC, and youth deaths involving fentanyl rose by 182% during that same time period.

Division of Public Health Chief Physician Dr. Michael Coletta explained that many younger people who unintentionally overdose used what they believed to be prescription pills like Xanax or Oxycontin, not realizing that the pills are laced with fentanyl.

Colette said the state has been “meeting kids where they’re at” through their social media campaign, which started in late 2022 with the goal of educating young people about the possible presence of fentanyl in pills they may buy online — sometimes on that same social media platform.

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