The opioid epidemic is complicated — politics, medicine and social determinants of health, like poverty, all play a role in the widespread increase in addiction to opioids across North Carolina. Perhaps the most complex pillar of the epidemic is culture.
How our society approaches addiction and supports those in need can play a pivotal role in combatting the opioid epidemic — but that culture can also create an environment that hinders recovery, exacerbates challenges for those with opioid use disorders and puts students at risk. As college campuses are forced to grapple with the harsh realities of collegiate opioid misuse, we can draw on our strengths as a cohesive community while addressing the harmful facets of college culture.
This past Monday, Attorney General Josh Stein convened the first meeting of his council on collegiate opioid misuse. The council of undergraduate and graduate UNC-system students is tasked with recommending next steps for combating the opioid epidemic on UNC college campuses. Campus culture was a recurring theme throughout the four-hour long discussion.
America’s culture around pain, medication and addiction is deeply rooted and thoroughly established. In the 1990s, pain was deemed the fifth vital sign through which doctors assess a patient’s well-being. This encouraged doctors to alleviate pain with prescription drugs instead of safer, less addictive alternatives. Soon after, prescriptions of opioids and opioid-related deaths began to rise, giving way to a modern medical crisis that is expected to kill half a million Americans in the next decade.
A procedure as commonplace as wisdom teeth removal can lead to a life-altering opioid addiction. This dangerous simplicity is part of the reason why the crisis has endured for so long, and why it is only now receiving the attention it desperately needs.
While pain education must improve at the medical level to combat the opioid epidemic, our community’s understanding of addiction and physical and emotional pain also requires new efforts. It is critical that the UNC community examines how social rituals impact the “culture of recovery” on campuses. At the council’s meeting, Stein said that “college is the absolute moment of promise.”
For all their opportunities, one’s college years can also be a dangerous time where substance-fueled parties spark new addictions and aggravate old ones. While many at-risk students turn to the flagship Carolina Recovery Program for support in navigating campus life in recovery, others are not so lucky and are forced to drop out due to their addiction, or worse.
Peer-to-peer support can be as valuable as professional help in aiding people get help and recover. Unlike many drugs, opioid use disorders can be difficult to spot, as many people remain high functioning until it is too late.
Changes in culture can be spurred by action in policy. In turn, culture can inspire high-impact policies. An example of this exchange lies in the availability of Naloxone, a lifesaving drug that reverses most opioid overdoses. Thanks to a collaboration between the Health Behavior Capstone and the N.C. Harm Reduction program, students can pick up Naloxone at the Student Stores Pharmacy and Campus Health Pharmacy anonymously and free of charge.
While the federal government has not yet finalized a strategy to combat opioid misuse, the steps taken in Chapel Hill and around the state are certainly sound examples to inspect.
Success in combatting the opioid epidemic will lie at the juncture of policy action and social awareness support.
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