Alexa Doiron

As opioid addiction spreads through Southwest Virginia, Montgomery County Public Schools are working to combat the epidemic at the student level.

At the July 18 school board meeting, members discussed how to expand their substance abuse prevention programs to include opioid addiction.

Members brought up the importance of teaching students to understand the difference between using opioids as medicine and misusing it as a drug.

“I think students are going to opioid abuse because they know they can use it and get prescriptions for it,” Melissa Hipple, Coordinator of School Counseling said. “Students see that so many resources going to drunk driving and heroin, but not something as serious and rapidly growing as opioid addiction.”

Opioids are prescription medicines that are used to relieve pain but can lead to dependence and addiction. In studies across the nation, it has been found that opioid addiction is most prevalent in rural communities, such as Montgomery County. In the past year, Virginia declared opioid addiction a public health emergency as deaths, especially in the southwest region, have reached epidemic proportions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified a growing, deadly epidemic of prescription painkiller (opioid) abuse across the country. The rate of death from overdoses of prescription opioids in the U.S. more than quadrupled between 1999 and 2010.

After a survey of substance abuse prevention from various programs across the county, the school board found that very few discussed opioid addiction in-depth or at all. This is an area that the school board would like to take action on in order to teach students at a young age the debilitating effects of the drug.

“It’s definitely a problem and moving in our direction,” Hipple said. “So anything that we can do to be proactive and demonstrate a community of resistance to our students is important.”

The school board also looked at the results of this survey to discover other areas of substance abuse prevention that can be improved in the upcoming year.

Currently, prevention programs start in 5th grade with the DARE initiative, which teaches, self-awareness, responsible decision-making, communication skills and more. Elementary schools also have counselors involved with students to teach them the effects of drugs and alcohol, peer pressure, and the difference between medicine and candy.

“The thought behind the DARE program is the idea to teach youth how to make safe and healthy decisions that will carry to all areas of their lives,” Hipple said.

In the middle schools, students are introduced to Project Alert, which teaches them consequences of smoking, resistance skills, inhalant abuse, and other effects of drug usage.

When students finally move to the high schools, students are only required to take health and P.E. classes in 9th and 10th grade, however. The school board is looking for more ways to reach students outside of these classes, such as offering mock crashes that demonstrate the effects of driving under the influence, as well as co-curricular clubs. The objective of these programs is to expand on what students learn in their classrooms such as living drug-free and understanding the role of medicines.

“We want to connect students with a positive connection in the community,” Hipple said. “When you’re connected to something and a part of something, you’re less likely to use drugs and alcohol.”

The school board is also looking at putting more emphasis on mental health in relation to drugs and alcohol as well. The school plans to gather more information on the mental health needs of students during this school year and review the curriculum in order to add lessons on mental health, suicide prevention, and drug use in relation to these topics.

Around 80 percent of people who commit suicide have drugs and/or alcohol in their system, Hipple, so the school board sees the need to cover that with students.

The school board plans to implement new policies for this upcoming school year as well as do more research on how to better meet the heath education needs of the students. The next meeting will be on Aug. 1 at 7 p.m at the County Government Center on 755 Roanoke St., Christiansburg, Va.

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