Students from the Peer-to-Peer program at Bordentown Regional High School, facilitated by student assistance counselor Nell Geiger, have done their part to help fight the opioid crisis that they see play out on their cell phone screens and in their lives.
Recently, Geiger connected with City of Angels founder, Kevin Meara, to discuss inviting her students to be part of the Reach NJ opioid public awareness campaign. A professional film crew interviewed nine Bordentown students and combined these with footage of recovering young adult addicts in Mercer County to create a 30-second public service announcement for New Jersey’s Facing Addiction Taskforce.
Geiger attributes the prevalence of drug abuse in high schools across America to pharmaceutical companies in the 1990s who took advantage of an attitude in American society that pain is something to be fixed, not just endured.
Rather than bucking up to pain, as people did when she was young, today “everybody masks pain” by going to the doctor and getting a prescription for pain medication. Any of the remaining highly addictive opioid medicine often sits in the medicine cabinet, ripe for an adolescent or young adult who chooses to self-medicate to get rid of physical or emotional pain.
“Nobody chooses to become addicted, but unfortunately that is what is happening because an opioid is highly addictive, and before they realize it they are hooked,” Geiger says, noting that an opioid “gives the same high as heroin.”
When Geiger asked students in her health class how many knew someone who takes pain pills, a third of the hands went up. And even when she asked her students whether they had ever been on prescription pain medicines, many hands went up.
Sharing her own experience with routine dental surgery that involved “a millimeter-size incision,” Geiger says her dentist offered her a prescription for Vicodin for pain, and she responded, “What do I need that for?”
“Doctors are so quick to prescribe these medications; they need much more education on the harmful effects of these pills—they have highly addicting qualities about them,” she says.
The students who join the peer-to-peer group, Geiger says, “are adolescents who want to help others and primarily help those younger students to educate them about stress and issues that affect them in their education.”
One project was a skit on “vaping,” which is the delivery system that e-cigarettes use to transfer liquid nicotine to the body without tobacco.
They also taught third graders how to cope with stress that Geiger attributes to financial strain on families, both parents having to work, skyrocketing divorce rates, and people straying from church. She also blames technology. “Kids today don’t have the resources to know how to communicate and connect with another human being because of electronics. Their go-to is social media, and it’s now known that these devices cause anxiety.”
The PSA that the peer-to-peer students created captures vividly how opioid abuse can happen to anyone. A couple of students had seen members of their own families addicted to heroin.
One student grew up in a house with pain medications because her father suffered from diabetes and heart disease. She also had an aunt and uncle who struggled with a drug addiction that eventually led him to commit suicide. “I’ve seen them struggle with money because of the cost of drugs,” she says. “They would come to my mom and dad for money. My mom thought it was for groceries; but my dad kind of knew what it was for, and he would feed the addiction.”
Another student, who remembers his father using heroin every day, attributes his addiction to getting in “with the wrong crowd.” When the student was in third and fourth grade, living with his father and stepmother, he often had to take responsibility for his younger half-brother. “They would leave him crying. At a young age I learned how to make bottles, change diapers, and put him to bed,” he says. In the end his father and stepmother both died of heroine overdoses.
Students from the peer-to-peer group also painted a picture of just how omnipresent drugs are at school.
Senior Catherine Mercantini says that many kids use drugs, although not necessarily hard drugs. “People have fake pens with THC (marijuana) oil. I will see it in the bathrooms all the time,” she says.
“The big thing is vapes—it is like the new cigarette,” senior Jeffrey Horner says. But the students don’t use these e-cigarettes only for the nicotine, which itself is addictive, but sometimes mix nicotine with THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana).
Mercantini has been actively fighting drug abuse since she was a freshman, working with Paul Ressler, the owner of The Overdose Prevention Agency Corporation in Hamilton, who she met at a panel she attended with Geiger. Ressler’s son Corey died of an overdose in 2010, and TOPAC educates the public in particular about the 911 “good Samaritan” law. Mercantini explains, “If you call 911, you and the person who has overdosed are safe and won’t get prosecuted.” Ressler plans to use the PSA for training law enforcement officers, first responders, and concerned citizens on how to administer Narcan (or naloxone), a drug that can reverse the process of opioid overdose.
Horner, who says he has done several papers for school on drug abuse, felt very positively about laws meant to help abusers rather than punish hem. “I feel like our state is doing a really good thing—instead of the war on drugs, if you make people not want to do it, you will have less problems and less people using.” Noting that some addicts manage to hold down a day job, he adds, “To give these people a criminal record when they are working every day is ridiculous. You should be focusing on helping them stop or preventing them from doing it in the first place.”
Mercantini is hopeful that the PSA involving the peer-to-peer students will effectively share information on drug abuse more widely. “It’s important that other people see what is actually going on and affecting high school students and older adults, and that there is a chance to recover from it,” she says.
Horner says he will consider the PSA a success even if it only helps one or two people. If those people are parents, and the PSA portrays for them what’s not good about drug abuse, all the better. “That creates a chain reaction,” he says. “Not only does drug abuse affect the user but it affects the whole family. Drug users are completely different people when they are on whatever.”