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Drug epidemic knows no boundary

| Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017, 8:55 p.m.
McClellan Elementary School fifth-graders release balloons following their DARE recognition ceremony at the school in June. (Trib photo)
Jim Spezialetti | Tribune-Review
McClellan Elementary School fifth-graders release balloons following their DARE recognition ceremony at the school in June. (Trib photo)

Editor's note: With the return of drug-awareness programs like DARE in schools, the Trib asked area health-care providers to weigh in on the efficacy of these programs. In addition to the commentary below, two more appear online at TribLIVE by Mitchell West, medical director of addiction services for Allegheny Health Network, and Mike Semelka, chairman of the Excela Health Department of Family Medicine and program director of Latrobe Hospital Family Medicine Residency.

Who are the victims of drug abuse in our communities? We see them every day in the emergency department. Our friends, neighbors, colleagues, those in suits and ties and those in tattered clothing. You cannot recognize the drug abuser — they look like all of us.

Those not abusing may be victims as well. It seems that we all know of someone who is struggling with trying to save a friend or loved one from being our latest overdose victim. This epidemic affects everyone. Just as the abusers and their families suffer, so do the medical-care providers. Caring for those affected by drug abuse weighs heavily on the medical community — every loss is a failure to rescue.

DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) was developed in the early 1980s as a way to combat drug use, gang behavior and violent behavior in the community. Students who enter the program sign a pledge to not use drugs and to partner with law enforcement to receive education on the dangers of recreational drug use. There are reports that some school districts are considering bringing back DARE programs to help combat the opioid epidemic. Will it help?

I would suggest that DARE in some form should come back into the schools as soon as possible. Perhaps not led solely by law enforcement, but led by those in the community facing the problem with law enforcement, engaging the medical community, the addiction/rehab community, those who have beaten addiction and perhaps even those still fighting it. Information is power in this fight.

Education cannot just live in the schools. Parents and families crave the knowledge that programs like DARE offer. Just attend any of the local drug symposiums and look at the demographics of the crowd — parents, teachers, grandparents, students. The key to the cure is information.

What are the symptoms? What behaviors should we look for? What are the current abuse trends? There is no cookie-cutter class — these issues are locally based and, for buy-in from the community, have to be locally taught and frequently updated.

Imagine a weekly DARE meeting in any local school district with the same attendance as a Friday-night football game — kids, parents, community leaders sitting together. Imagine the impact of that kind of ongoing education, not just on the students but on the entire community. Imagine having that kind of community support.

Can DARE make a difference? Absolutely! But don't stop short and only educate our young people. This epidemic knows no age boundary — educate the community to partner with the children, teachers, law enforcement and medical providers.

Together, we all possess a piece of the puzzle that leads to a cure.

Dr. William A. Jenkins is director of emergency medicine at Excela Health Frick Hospital.

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