Last year, more than 60,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the United States. That’s more Americans dying in one year than during the entire 19 years of the Vietnam War. In our small state, 112 Vermonters died from a drug overdose, which is three times as many as died in 2010. And what’s even more shocking than the sheer numbers of people dying is how hard this epidemic is hitting younger people. Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death for people younger than 50. In Vermont, the average age of death from overdose is just 40 years old. And in 2016, nearly 20 percent of the drug overdose deaths were in people under age 30.
Solving the opioid epidemic will not be easy. We’re going to have to challenge the pharmaceutical industry, which made huge profits by putting drugs on the market that were far more addictive than they admitted. We’re going to have to deal with drug wholesalers, who are selling far more pills than anyone thinks is necessary for medical reasons. We’re going to have to make sure doctors and dentists – as Vermont providers have begun doing – take up safe prescribing practices so excess painkillers aren’t abused or misused and that states use tools to curb so-called “doctor shopping” and “pill-mills.”
But, at the end of the day, if we’re going to solve this terrible crisis, we’re going to have to do a lot better job at prevention – keeping people from turning to drugs in the first place. And to do that, we must look to our young people. For that reason, on the Friday before the Thanksgiving break, I went to Burlington High School to talk to the entire student body. I was joined by T.J. Donovan, Vermont’s Attorney General; Dr. Heather Stein, an expert on opioid addiction; and Kelly Breeyear, a courageous woman who is living in recovery from addiction. I wanted to discuss the dangers of taking opioids, but I also wanted to hear from our students. I needed their help.
In Washington, I sit on the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, which hears from some of the most knowledgeable people in this country on all kinds of matters relating to health care and education. But on this issue of opioid and heroin addiction, and on the question of why so many young people are turning to drugs and how we can prevent that, I believe our nation’s young people might know more than the experts.
These young people know first-hand what it’s like to live in a family where a parent struggles with addiction. They know from personal experience what kind of pressure exists when your best friends are experimenting with pills and ask you to join in. They might also know, if they injured themselves or had their wisdom teeth removed, how tempting it could be to keep taking painkillers prescribed by a doctor, even when the physical pain subsides. They certainly know better than older generations what it’s like to be growing up in today’s crazy and rapidly changing world. And, perhaps most tragically, they know how common it can be to struggle with anxiety or even depression – a growing problem for young people.
In their questions and comments, what I heard from these high school students was truly insightful. Many of them talked about looking for ways to fight stigma, to make it clear that it is okay to confide in each other about personal and family problems and that one not need to be embarrassed to ask for professional help. They talked about how important it is for people struggling with addiction to not only have access to treatment, but have their recovery supported when they came back home. They wanted to understand why health insurance companies are willing to pay for expensive prescription opioids, but refuse to cover other options like acupuncture and yoga, or mental health care.
If I learned one thing from talking with and listening to these students, it’s that they do know the dangers of heroin and other opioids. They know that these drugs can destroy their lives, and the lives of the people they love. But I also learned that they want and need constructive alternatives. And that, as adults, is our job.
We must create schools that challenge them intellectually and support them emotionally, and make sure that none of them “fall through the cracks.” We must help make sure they have a safe place to live and an opportunity for higher education or a job that gives them purpose. We must appreciate their ideas and make them a part of the solution. Every single one of our young people deserves a chance at a bright future. And when we accomplish that, I have little doubt that we will have gone a long way toward ending the opioid crisis.