College students step up to help save lives amid opioid overdose crisis
Underclassmen, graduate students and staffers from across Indiana University of Pennsylvania's sprawling campus crowded into a small training room down the hall from the school's office of behavioral health.
Their goal: learn how to recognize a drug overdose and administer naloxone, an opioid antidote that can save the lives of people who have overdosed on heroin or narcotic pain medications such as oxycodone and morphine.
Like many colleges and universities, IUP and its student body of about 13,000 is confronting a regional opioid epidemic that doesn't stop at campus borders.
Matt Bessell, a clean-cut freshman, said he signed up for last week's training in part because volunteering is in his blood. His father is a volunteer firefighter in New Castle, and both parents are emergency medical technicians.
Bessell said he has witnessed two overdoses — one back home in New Castle and another on campus.
Sophomore Rachel Tuthill also has seen the toll of addiction.
“I'm from Leechburg, and it's a big problem in my community, in Leechburg and Vandergrift. People who went to high school with my brother have died, and a person I know just went into rehab,” Tuthill said as nurse trainer Tina Hooker cued up a naloxone training video.
By the end of the semester, IUP will have trained more than 100 students, faculty and staffers to recognize the symptoms of an opioid overdose and equipped them with naloxone rescue kits, which include a simple nasal spray dose that can reverse the effects of an overdose.
University police officers have received rescue kits, as well.
Campus police at the University of Pittsburgh and Point Park University have been trained and equipped with naloxone, which is sold under the brand name Narcan. Pitt's Oakland campus has 26,300 students, while Point Park has about 3,900 in Downtown Pittsburgh.
Opioid addiction is a massive problem rippling across campuses in every state, said Frank Greenagel Jr., a clinical social worker in New Jersey specializing in addiction and recovery treatment who is an adjunct professor at Rutgers University.
Some colleges, however, are hesitant to address the issue absent one of three scenarios, Greenagel said.
“Either you'll have one high-level administrator or an administrator's family member in recovery, a high-profile death on campus or something off campus that can't be ignored,” he said. “Or the third thing is to have a junior staffer pushing people in the right direction.”
More and more schools nationwide are taking action.
The University of Albany this month hosted 140 students, alumni and staff for naloxone training on its New York campus, equipping each with an overdose kit.
The University of Texas at Austin provides free naloxone around the clock at the front desk of all residence halls.
The University of Washington places naloxone kits along with defibrillators next to fire extinguishers on its Seattle campus.
Greenagel, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor, previously oversaw the Recovery House on Rutgers' campus. It is home to students who have been in drug or alcohol recovery for three months or more.
In 2009, a single student struggling to recover from opioids lived there. By fall of 2010, fully half of all residents were recovering from opioid addiction, he said.
State figures gleaned from admissions to drug and alcohol programs nationwide show more patients are admitted for opioid addiction than alcohol or any other drug, Greenagel said.
While he is a proponent of colleges making naloxone training widely available, Greenagel recommends that campuses adopt prevention education programs and have at least one licensed drug and alcohol counselor for every 10,000 students.
‘Fact of life'
A growing wave of colleges and universities have opted to adjust zero-tolerance policies on substance abuse in favor of student-first policies — including several Western Pennsylvania schools.
Such guidelines aim to reduce the toll of deadly drug and alcohol abuse by offering amnesty to students who intervene to save others, even if they themselves may have violated university policies. The new policies appear to acknowledge what substance-abuse experts have known for years: that drug and alcohol abuse are a fact of life on college campuses.
The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that more than one-third of college students 18 to 22 engaged in binge drinking in the last month, while as many as one in five used an illegal drug.
In many communities, it begins well before students reach college age.
Although heroin has never touched her close friends or family, IUP sophomore Kassandra Collins said she grew up surrounded by it.
“I graduated from Norwin. It's a rich community. It's considered a good school,” said Collins, a pre-pharmacy major. “But they called us ‘Heroin High.' ”
Point Park considers an evolving approach to substance abuse as part of its educational mission, said Keith Paylo, the school's vice president of student affairs and dean of students.
“Opioid use is a fact. If we deny it, it will only get worse,” he said. “We need to confront it and educate students about it. After all, we are an educational institution.”
Point Park offers amnesty to students who intervene as bystanders to get help for those who suffer an overdose or alcohol poisoning. The university does not sanction students who come forward seeking help for substance abuse, Paylo said.
IUP officials said it is a matter of making student safety a priority.
“We couldn't talk about it from both sides of our mouth, about students taking care of each other and then penalize them for it,” said Mike Lamasters, IUP's associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “We would much rather have students help each other instead of them worrying more about the fact that they had a beer than that someone is laying out there in the weeds.”
Pitt spells out expectations for such situations in its student handbook.
During incidents “involving imminent threat or danger” to someone's health or safety, students are expected to:
• Contact campus emergency officials or call 911.
• Remain with the person who needs emergency treatment.
• Cooperate with emergency and university officials at the scene and during subsequent investigations.
Pitt this fall adopted a new approach to binge drinking that requires new students to register for PantherTRAC — a text-based service that sends frequent messages asking students about their drinking habits and encouraging them to avoid the kind of drinking that can lead to potentially lethal alcohol poisoning.
Like their counterparts, IUP officials said most of their student substance-abuse problems center on alcohol.
Even so, the decision to begin working with the Armstrong-Indiana-Clarion Drug and Alcohol Commission to train staff and students to use naloxone and provide rescue kits was an easy call, said Ann Sesti, assistant director of the school's office of Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs.
The multi-county drug and alcohol commission received a grant to purchase the kits. The Open Door, an Indiana agency that specializes in addiction counseling and crisis intervention, provided the training for free.
“I felt we needed to get this into the hands of our students, get it into the hands of people who can save a life,” Sesti said. “No one should die of an overdose. We should have compassion and reach out.”
Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996.