After Losing Peers To Pill Overdose, LSU Student Decides To Make Movie To Raise Awareness

By Victoria Kim 02/09/18

“The number of people that I have known that have died from prescription drug overdoses, just in my college years, is well into the teens.”

Young man holding a video camera to his eye

Using pills for fun has become so ubiquitous on his college campus that one Louisiana State University student said even he, who chooses to be sober, has become desensitized to the idea.

Based on his experience witnessing his peers both at LSU and from his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina, Symmes Culbertson shared with the Clarion Ledger that he is working on a short film called Only the Good.

“I just wanted to tell the story about my peers that shows everybody thinks they’re having a good time, and while that’s true 90% of the time, there’s that 10% of the time where you not only do, you die from it, but it devastates the lives of the people that care about you,” said Culbertson.

The 23-year-old political science major has been to six funerals of classmates who died of prescription drug overdose since he first started attending LSU in 2013. “The number of people that I have known by name or in passing that have died from prescription drug overdoses, just in my college years, is well into the teens,” said Culbertson.

According to a study that analyzed hospitalization data from 1999-2008 of people aged 18 to 24, overdoses involving prescription painkillers increased 122% over this time period.

Culbertson recalled some of the causes of death of his peers. He’d heard that one friend had overdosed on fentanyl combined with Xanax. Taking Xanax for non-prescription use has become the norm, he said, and it’s often mixed with alcohol.

The study referenced earlier also recorded a 76% increase of overdoses involving alcohol combined with other drugs from 1999-2008.

In fact, drugs had become so ingrained in his environment that Culbertson one day caught himself speaking casually about misusing Xanax.

Another friend had died overnight, and he got the call the next morning. He said, “That’s crazy. He only took five (Xanax) sticks last night.” He realized at that moment that he himself had accepted this type of drug use as normal.

“And that’s what has come to scare me,” he told the Ledger, “the culture here is so accepting of it that even me, who doesn’t do any of this stuff, it’s normalized to me. My thinking has gotten as distorted as anybody engaging in the culture.”

Even back home in Greenville, Symmes’ sister Callie counted eight people from their town who have died from drug overdoses. “Everybody knows somebody this has touched,” she said. “The problem is no one is changing.”

Parents argue that schools should do more to educate kids on the risks of misusing prescription drugs or illicit drugs. But that’s only half the battle, Culbertson says.

“There’s not much a support group can do when people aren’t looking for support. Nobody feels like they have a problem,” he said.

“Students don’t really identify themselves as drug addicts, and everybody else is turning a blind eye.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr