Last year, drug overdoses rose by 21% across the country. This is now the deadliest drug crisis in American history, largely because of opioids, and a public health emergency. This crisis affects millions of people across the country – particularly young people we teach in New England as one of the most hard-hit regions. Peer Health Exchange is committed to being a part of a comprehensive and effective response to the opioid crisis.
Opioid addiction and overdose in young people often stem from mental health issues – like anxiety and depression – as well as from recreational opioid use. Our skills-based curriculum aims to reduce substance abuse and increase mental health help-seeking behavior. The PHE program addresses these root causes by destigmatizing mental health concerns and helping students build strong decision-making skills to address peer pressure. We also connect young people to critical resources in their communities.
Through our work, we’ve seen significant increases in young people’s ability and readiness to seek help for mental health issues, which are at the root of so many addiction issues. As one young person said, “The most important thing I’ve learned from Peer Health is that if someone is going through depression, tell somebody. You need to tell somebody so that they can get the proper help they need. You can even advise them to go to a health center so they can also receive help.”
At the same time, we recognize that the opioid crisis requires a collaborative, targeted intervention beyond what we currently offer, like all complex health issues. We will continue to partner with health experts and institutions, schools, and young people to help young people get the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to combat mental health and substance abuse issues.
We also applaud the urgency and humanity many cities and states have demonstrated in responding to this crisis. However, as many experts have pointed out, the public response to the opioid epidemic is different from the response to the crack epidemic years ago. The crack epidemic was marked by its slow policy response, victim-blaming rhetoric, and unjust policing and sentencing practices. While the crack epidemic disproportionately affected Black communities, we know that most current opioid users are white, though this is changing.
Because PHE works with predominantly Black and Latinx students, it’s important to name these differences in how health crises play out and to call for high-quality programs and treatment for young people of color. We need to pay close attention to communities of color, which historically get less of the country’s attention and resources in moments like these. We believe that all young people deserve to lead live long, healthy lives free from addiction and to get the support and resources they need to address mental health and addiction issues.
We urge you to join with us to support effective education programs, like PHE, as well as humane, fair treatment for all people affected by the epidemic. Learn more about the crisis and resources specifically for young people. Talk to your elected officials about fair policing and sentencing standards for those caught in the opioid crisis, especially for people of color. Last, advocate for support and treatment programs in all communities, regardless of demographics, backed by real funding and swift action by the government at all levels.