Are High Schools the Answer to the Heroin Epidemic?

A Silver Lining in a Dark Cloud

silver lining in a dark cloud

Ironically, legislators’ own experiences with addiction led to bipartisanship and helpful laws in one state.

Rep. John Nygren of Wisconsin (R-Marinette), had high personal stakes when he introduced the Heroin, Opioid Prevention and Education Agenda to the State of Wisconsin in 2013. It was his daughter’s heroin addiction that inspired his ambitious HOPE Agenda that is proving to be of significant help in lawmaking intended to turn the tide of Wisconsin’s small lake in the nationwide opioid tsunami.

Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services reports that in the decade from 2006 to 2015, deaths by heroin have increased by 880 percent while prescription opioid deaths doubled. HOPE has led to the signing of 12 bills and three executive orders by Wisconsin’s governor, Scott Walker. These bills and orders support 17 existing laws written by Nygren.

Heroin addiction was declared an epidemic by the US Surgeon General back in July of 2015. Since that declaration, instead of the problem being reduced, it has grown across the United States, affecting those from every walk of life. Sadly, it is teens and young adults who are at highest risk for opioid and heroin addiction. They comprise the largest population of opioid and heroin addicts due to their frequent athletic injuries combined with the excessive availability of opioid pain medications.

The Miracle of HOPE

The purpose of HOPE is not only to facilitate recovery; it also aims at prevention. HOPE went over easily among Wisconsin’s legislature, probably because many of its legislators have stakes similar to Nygren’s. Personal stories among them include one legislator’s family having to deal with their 9-year-old child who helped himself to an opioid prescription. The rest of this story is unknown to me, but it seems to take personal promptings like these for our lawmakers to take action against the heroin epidemic, which is typically preceded by taking legitimate prescription opioids. The problem has finally gotten bad enough to warrant action.

Prescription tracking

Planned tracking of opioid prescriptions appears to have effected a reduction in prescriptions by 80 million pills in one year in one state alone.

Proposed checkpoints by HOPE for addiction prevention includes computer database monitoring of opioid prescriptions written by doctors. Although the program is not yet official, prescriptions between 2015 and 2016 have been reduced by 10 percent.  “That’s 80 million fewer addictive pills available for someone with an addiction or somebody that might be redistributing them to others for sale,” Nygren said.

However, because a doctor’s prescription isn’t the only way opioid addiction starts, education disseminated to the general population is sorely needed. Opioid addiction that leads to heroin use often begins by medicine cabinet theft (which often happens during real estate showings) and by people innocently giving their leftover opioid prescription to someone in pain. These pills often come into possession by teens who use and share them, and who once hooked, often become distribution agents for the real criminals who base their businesses near high schools. This includes criminals who also provide heroin.

Recovery High Schools?

Recovery high schools provide support

Recovery high schools include a range of services and therapeutic curricula. Most of all, they provide a buffer from drug availability at the recovering addict’s previous high school.

Gary Bennett, director of UW’s Office of Educational Opportunity, states that relapse rates for students trying to stay clean after rehabilitation is often more than 50 percent. He points out that a disconnect from sources of distribution is helpful in facilitating recovery.

Because the largest population of opioid pain med addicts consists of teens and young adults, and the end result is very often heroin addiction, part of Nygren’s HOPE is to create charter recovery high schools for addicts. There is one addiction recovery high school in the Midwest, but as a non-profit, privately-funded school it struggles to survive on donations.

Nygren promoted the idea of charter high schools to be facilitated by the University of Wisconsin-Madison and financed by Medicaid and the public school system. “It’s been a really great example of the Capitol and UW working together to meet a very serious crisis,” said Bennett. Recovery high schools could be helpful not only because rehabilitation is built into the curricula, but as Bennett explains, the environment works against recidivism “…because…their distribution point could probably be on or near campus…” of their old high school.


Saving lives is only the end game

Narcan has begun to save many young lives, but we need to get addicts from the end-game back to enjoying life without drugs.

Current statistics show an improvement in Wisconsin’s opioid death since 2013. This is attributed to wider availability and use of the prescription Narcan, a simple nasal spray that revives addicts who are in the process of dying from an opioid overdose. I discussed Narcan and other medications that experts consider helpful in treating opioid addiction in my 4-Part blog, Heroin Addiction Treatment Options. But saving addicts from their deathbed is addressing only the end-game; it is only one tiny piece that doesn’t solve the underlying problem of getting young people back into the game of life.

A problem faced by most states is availability of treatment programs that work, especially in rural areas. State Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, says the rural area of Wisconsin she represents has no resources for addressing and treating opioid addiction, and prevention is the best option where treatment programs are lacking.

As an Inspirational Drug Prevention Speaker certified by Youth Speaker University, I agree that prevention probably has the most impact, rural or not, because it can be practiced effectively at both ends of the problem: preventing the onset of addiction as well as preventing recidivism during and after treatment. Now if only we can get the treatment options that actually work in place, instead of housing addicts within the revolving doors of expensive rehab centers and private prisons that obviously aren’t working.

The Change Agent

While opioid prescriptions have—in the past at least—gone completely unchecked, many doctors complain the drug Suboxone, proven effective in reducing recidivism during and after rehab or behavioral therapy, has been over-regulated. Suboxone, like Narcan, contains naloxone. The relatively few doctors who are allowed to prescribe it are not only limited to the number of addicts for whom they can prescribe it. They are also limited in the length of time they can prescribe for the addict to receive it. Such laws reflect a hard stance that a drug should not be used to replace another drug, along with a punishment mentality based on the stigmatism that comes with heroin addiction.

addiction is not a crime

Most heroin addicts spend time in prison. Their crime? Addiction.

Speaking of punishment, it is common across the US for the heroin addict to endure imprisonment, having to cold-turkey it through the unbearable sickness of withdrawal in circumstances that are nearly inhumane for a well person, let alone an extremely sick one. Their crime? Being addicted to a drug they can’t get beyond without help because their brain has been literally hijacked by an addiction that has its source in opioid pain prescriptions. Yet those pain pills continue to be mass produced beyond normal need. Meanwhile relief from medications that would help in overcoming the addiction is withheld, while punishment is doled out by judges who place them into a private prison system.

This strikes me as being backwards. Why has Suboxone—a drug that cannot be used to get high and is proven to reduce recidivism—been overly-regulated while the source of opioid addiction—pain med prescriptions—has only recently come under consideration for such regulation?  This topic is covered in my citations of doctors and research experts in my 4-Part blog series, Heroin Addiction Treatment Options.

While Wisconsin’s legislators recognize there is much more work to be done before any of these solutions will combine and turn the tide of the opioid epidemic, my hope is that other states will implement similar agendas that lead to task forces and laws that do work.

My mission in life is to turn around the heroin epidemic that took the life of one of my children. I want to see this happen during my surviving children’s lifetimes, so I will be assured that their children’s children may grow up in a clean, healthy society driven by values other than money.


‘All hands on deck’: the national, state and local battle against the opioid epidemic | The Daily Cardinal

and my 4-part blog post, Heroin Addiction Treatment Options

Please Comment!

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  1. Chanan


    This is totally not good especially to the younger ones who are still in high school. This is never a good substance for anyone of any age. This is the very reason why the children at school should be given an extra attention so that their activities could be monitored and thus make sure that everything is going well in their system.

    Your article is really an enlightening for anybody who would be able to read this. One could just hope that abuse on substances like these ould is put to a stop already.

    • Rori O'Hara

      Glad you appreciate this info, Chanan. This is a problem that has been growing because of distribution channels around the world for almost a century, combined with cultural adaptation. The US Surgeon General declared it an epidemic nearly 2 years ago, yet we have seen no progress in curbing it; we’ve only seen it’s growth. Please join me in efforts to curb it by promoting evidence-based medical and psychological tactics, and prevention, to your legislators. Thanks for reading.

  2. Arta

    I do admire people who care about others and who dare to bring problems to public attention by developing tools or programs for helping. I believe fighting the reasons is very important thing here otherwise it is like fighting windmill. Why do teens tend to try drugs and why do they become addicted? Why are opoid pain medications excessively available? I also think that this fight should be held at the level of the nations as this problem is worldwide.

    • Rori O'Hara

      So well said, Arta!

      Your first question is very important, and because I didn’t answer it in my article I will say here that a big reason teens try drugs is they are in a stage of growth where they want to try new things, and they simply need more information about the terrible consequences, as well as information about how their life can be cultivated for greatness without drugs.

      Your second question is one that certainly many people today are considering, and rightly so. Third, wouldn’t it be great if nations around the world would unite over this problem? That would make a huge difference, in more ways than one. Thanks for your insightful comments!

  3. Joy

    Thank you for all your work around getting information out there. I am a psychologist and I specialize in addictions, and I can tell you first hand that there are not enough resources out there for opiate addictions. There is so much stigma around people who use heroin, fentanyl, or abuse prescription opiates. But they are just normal people that now have brains dependent on a substance and need help changing. There is also the thought that heroin or fentanyl addicts are a lost cause, but they aren’t. They get better all the time, and any resources spent on addiction is well worth it. Suboxone is an absolute lifesaver for so many people. Keep up the good work.

    • Rori O'Hara

      Wow, Joy, I am honored to have credibility in the eyes of an addiction psychologist; thank you! It seems experts like you are at odds with how the law and entities that stand to benefit financially are handling this epidemic. I will press on, especially with support from the troops on the ground like yourself who are hands on. Thanks for your supportive comments.

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