Can Drug Education Decrease Opioid Use For College Students?

By Kelly Burch 09/19/17

Officials in the state of Maryland believe drug education could be the key to reducing opioid-related deaths. 

college students sitting in a classroom.

A new law passed in Maryland requires any college receiving state funds to educate students on the dangers of opioid drugs, including heroin, and to keep the opioid-reversal drug naloxone stocked on campus. 

The initiative is part of a push by the state to emphasize education as a way to reduce opioid deaths. Last year 2,000 people in the state died from drug or alcohol overdoses, according to Inside Higher Ed. In addition to targeting colleges and universities, the law also requires that students be taught about the dangers of opioids twice in elementary school and once in high school. 

Officials hope that by teaching young people about the dangers of opioids they will decrease the number of people who overdose. However, even proponents acknowledge that there is only so much impact that educational programs can make, particularly at the college level. 

“What we should be held to—what we should all be held to—is, ‘Are we moving in the right direction?’” said Tammy Wincup, CEO of EverFi, a prescription-drug safety and addiction-prevention program that operates at some Maryland colleges.

She says that education alone is not the answer to the opioid crisis. “This is going to require a variety of different responses and a variety of different channels to solve,” she said.

In addition to its drug education program EverFi operates AlcoholEdu, an education program about the dangers of drinking that many college students are required to take. A study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that students who took the course saw a significant reduction in alcohol-related problems. However, the results “did not persist in the spring semester.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told Inside Higher Ed that there is limited data on how effective drug education programs are, as well as what type of programs are the most likely to reduce drug use. 

“There isn’t much evidence about the effectiveness of educational programs among college students, but in terms of programs for adolescent populations, effective programs are those that go beyond traditional messaging and also promote positive youth development and skills,” said Courtney Lenard, a CDC spokeswoman.

She noted that early studies on the effects of opioid education were positive, but limited. 

“Interventions have shown longitudinal effects on a range of other substance misuse and problem behaviors and have evidence supporting economic benefits,” she said. “Although these results are extremely promising, the sample sizes were small—there was an overall low rate of prescription opioid misuse—and it is yet unclear how such findings might generalize to populations broader than those studied.”

Considering how best to educate college students about the dangers of opioids and whether doing so is an effective use of funds is important as the Trump administration increasingly emphasizes drug education as a means of prevention. 

“The problem is very complicated, and currently we’re on the losing side of this war,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said last month. “We know that this involves public health, the medical community, health-care delivery system, law enforcement, education, local and statewide elected officials, devastated families, and those in treatment and recovery.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.