Trying to do school work in a home where the electric has been shut off, there is nothing to eat, and the parents are in the bathroom getting high takes second place to just trying to survive — that is the reality of the opioid crisis’ effect on children of addicted parents.
Widespread addiction to opioids, from prescription painkillers to heroin, is creating a generation of adults who have succumbed to an existence centered around getting high. They have no time for anything else because drug addiction is all encompassing. They leave their children to fend for themselves, for each other, and sometimes all alone when an overdose ends their life. The opioid crisis is not only taking the lives of those who abuse drugs, but threatening the lives of their children who don’t know how to cope.
National emergencies are normally declared following hurricanes or serious disease outbreaks, but President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency late this summer. Specific plans to deal with this emergency are not yet clear, but the President has said that he plans to spend “a lot of time and money” to address the opioid crisis. “It is a serious problem the likes of which we have never had,” he stated. “There’s never been anything like what’s happened to this country over the last four or five years.”
The statistics support the emergency nature of the opioid crisis. The American Society of Addiction Medicine estimates 2 to 3 million people are addicted to prescription painkillers or heroin. The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addition and the Opioid Crisis issued a report that stated 142 Americans die every day of drug overdoses based upon 2015 statistics, and more up-to-date data promises a significant rise in that number.
The opioid crisis is having such a traumatic effect on kids that some schools are not waiting for a national plan. They are dealing with it now to help their students cope as they suffer from the death of a parent from an overdose, the anxiety of living in foster care or with relatives, or try to live in a home where their possessions are sold for drugs.
Teachers at South Webster High School in southern Ohio created a course based on the book “Dreamland” by Sam Quinones, which tells how drugs from rural Mexico make their way to the small towns of southern Ohio where these students live. The teachers have also made the community a part of this course and the fire chief, former coroner, counselors, nurses, and a judge tell what they have seen and experienced of the opioid crisis. The kids also learn from other students who are going through the same crisis in their lives. Cyndy Hykes, who teaches the class to almost 50 juniors at South Webster High School, has a mission. “How can I make them feel like their experiences have value, that their community is important, that we’re not poor and rural and disposable?”
East Falmouth Elementary
This Cape Cod, Massachusetts elementary school had the opioid crisis come home when six parents of its fourth grade students died of drug overdoses, half of the 12 parent drug deaths in the school. Its program begins in kindergarten for kids born dependent on drugs by creating an intervention program for them. The school teachers and administrators strive to create a safe haven for the students by starting the day with music and exercises to express emotions. Students who have lost parents create memory chains to evoke the good memories they have of life with their parents. The school partners with a local psychiatric hospital for counseling and more intensive treatment where needed.
Handle With Care
This opioid crisis program at Cottageville Elementary School in West Virginia relies heavily on community involvement, starting with the local police department which contacts the schools if they have a call to a family home overnight. Teachers then know why the student from that family is not in school, or why that child is acting out in school. The principal regularly reads the local newspaper to learn if any of the students’ parents have been arrested so that she and the teachers are prepared to help those students. About one-third of the Cottageville students do not live with their parents because of drug abuse. Kids get what they need at school – food, clothing, or a hug. Because the budget only provides a school counselor three days a week, workers from the local plastics company have volunteered to become mentors — a person in the child’s life that they know they can depend upon.
Teaching children to cope with the opioid crisis is a lesson being learned by school administrators and teachers who are facing helping kids who know more about a life of drug addiction than they do. Nurturing them, keeping them off drugs, and helping them succeed despite their circumstances are challenges to be met by grandparents, foster parents, and the schools until there is an end to this national emergency.