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The Case for Opioid Prevention and Education Efforts to Save America’s Youth

No community has been immune from America's opioid epidemic.

Many people know someone who has battled addiction to prescription opioids or heroin. With 11 million Americans ages 12 and older reporting misuse of prescription opioids in the past year, and nearly 950,000 Americans reporting heroin use in the same span of time, addiction statistics have only gotten worse.

Drug overdose deaths are expected to exceed 64,000 in 2016—accounting for 175 deaths per day—and drug overdoses are now the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States, outnumbering both traffic crashes and gun-related deaths. Educators, families and community leaders must work together to attack this epidemic, and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is proud to work in collaboration with Discovery Education to activate life-saving conversations about drug-free living through Operation Prevention.

About two years ago, dedicated teams from the DEA and Discovery Education met to study the opioid crisis in America and plan our response. Quickly, we learned that we were dealing with a widespread disease cutting across lines of age, race, gender and wealth in both the most impoverished and affluent communities in the country.

Further review of the research also showed that while some regions—such as the Northeast, the Ohio Valley, and the Intermountain West—had higher incidences of overdoses, this truly was a nationwide issue rapidly advancing in every state and community.

Another important data point that surfaced in our review came courtesy of Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (NCASA). In 2011, NCASA revealed that 90 percent of Americans who suffered from addiction started abusing substances before age 18.

While young people are the most vulnerable to misusing substances, they are also the most susceptible to being influenced in their decision making. If youth could learn at a young age about the science behind addiction, appropriate practices of prescription medication, and the consequences of substance abuse, they may become less likely to experiment with opioids in the future. Based on this idea and the clear need for a nationwide initiative, the DEA and Discovery Education quickly began planning their response to the nation's opioid epidemic.

The DEA and Discovery Education's response, Operation Prevention, was launched in September 2016. Operation Prevention is a national, standards-aligned initiative developed to educate young people about the science behind opioids and their impact on the brain and body. Available to educators, parents and youth nationwide at no-cost, the initiative provides high-quality, engaging digital resources needed to initiate honest conversations with young people about the opioid epidemic.

Several weeks ago, Operation Prevention hosted its second Virtual Field Trip, available on-demand at operationprevention.com/virtual-field-trip. The Virtual Field Trip took young people nationwide on a tour of Huntington, a small town in West Virginia that is fighting back against the opioid epidemic. This immersive experience features interviews with community members and underscores how substance abuse is affecting lives in local communities.

The experience provides educators and youth, first hand, with relevant tools and actionable ways to confront addiction in their own communities, and Operation Prevention's online activities help elementary, middle and high school students understand how prescription drugs and heroin affect the brain and body.


Operation Prevention has also launched its second annual video challenge, aimed at inspiring teens to research the opioid epidemic, identify its widespread impact on the country and start a social movement that encourages authentic dialogue about this critical issue. Teens are encouraged to create 30-60 second original public service announcement that warns other youth about the dangers of prescription opioid misuse and heroin use. They may enter by March 20, 2018 for an opportunity to win a $10,000 prize.

Thankfully, state legislatures also understand the importance of combating opioid addiction through education. In September 2017, Maryland made drug education a required subject in public schools and additional states will no doubt soon follow. Operation Prevention will help Maryland's educators meet the state's mandate for anti-addiction education, and is ready to help additional states also meet their unique needs.

What we know is that we cannot combat this epidemic alone. We invite National AfterSchool Association (NAA) members to take the Operation Prevention pledge. Through the combination of this constantly expanding program, and the joint efforts of community members and leaders nationwide, we can end prescription opioid misuse and heroin use among our nation's most impressionable minds.

Operation Prevention and education efforts are ongoing, and drug-free living forums and conversations will also kick off in 2018 in a number of cities nationwide, including: Santa Rosa, Florida; Nashville, Tennessee; and Los Angeles, California. Operation Prevention has reached more than one million young people by providing schools and community programs nationwide the no-cost curriculum needed to educate youth about the consequences of substance abuse, and the program is looking to expand its reach to out-of-school arenas. Together, with NAA membership involvement, we can initiate millions more lifesaving conversations with America's youth about the opioid epidemic.

Join us. For more information on Operation Prevention and to take a pledge to help our nation combat opioid abuse today, visit operationprevention.com.

About the author: Sean Fearns is the chief of Community Outreach at the Drug Enforcement Administration.

About the Drug Enforcement Administration: The mission of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is to enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States and bring to the criminal and civil justice system of the United States, or any other competent jurisdiction, those organizations and principal members of organizations, involved in the growing, manufacture, or distribution of controlled substances appearing in or destined for illicit traffic in the United States; and to recommend and support non-enforcement programs aimed at reducing the availability of illicit controlled substances on the domestic and international markets.

About Discovery Education: Discovery Education is the global leader in standards-based digital content for K-12, transforming teaching and learning with award-winning digital textbooks, multimedia content, professional development, and the largest professional learning community of its kind. Serving 4.5 million educators and over 50 million students, Discovery Education's services are in half of U.S. classrooms, 50 percent of all primary schools in the UK, and more than 50 countries. Discovery Education partners with districts, states, and like-minded organizations to captivate students, empower teachers, and transform classrooms with customized solutions that increase academic achievement. Discovery Education is powered by Discovery Communications (NASDAQ: DISCA, DISCB, DISCK), the number one nonfiction media company in the world. Stay connected with Discovery Education on social media through Facebook, follow us on Twitter at @DiscoveryEd, or find us on Instagram and Pinterest. Explore the future of education at http://www.discoveryeducation.com.

A version of this article originally appeared on citiesspeak.org and has been republished with permission.

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