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A new generation buries its own

Millennials are grappling with the opioid plague. They need better attention.

Credit: amNew York / Jimmy Margulies

For those of us who are millennials and Generatin Zers, funerals are nothing new.

We were young kids during 9/11, and many of us on Long Island attended our first funerals soon after that day. We spent our formative years watching young men and women sign up to serve in the war on terror and head into Iraq and Afghanistan. Every generation has its war, and my generation’s war is here.

Our war isn’t in Afghanistan or Iraq or any other Middle Eastern country. Our war is at home and against opioids. Since 2006, New York’s heroin and opioid-overdose deaths have equaled or exceeded the national death rate each year, according to the most recent state report. And in 2014, 36 percent of drug-related deaths in New York were heroin-related.

As someone who fits the general idea of who an opioid addict is — white, middle class and between the ages of 18 and 25 — I’ve realized that it’s not that our education on drugs is “wrong”; the issue is that our education focuses on what drugs are, not what to do with them. And that needs to change.

The New York State Education Department updated its teaching guidelines for teachers on heroin and opioids in June 2016. The updated instruction is focused on functional knowledge of heroin and opioids, and begins in elementary school. While public school students receive more education on this topic than I did — I recall having to memorize the group of drugs heroin belonged in, and being told to “just say no” by D.A.R.E. programming — the Education Department fails to acknowledge the biggest gateway to opioid addiction.

By the time many of us reach adulthood, we’ll be prescribed opioids. Whether it’s for a sports injury or removal of a wisdom tooth, 27 percent of opioid abusers are getting drugs through their own prescriptions. And sometimes, people who abuse opioids believe they’ve simply acquired a tolerance. They use higher dosages over longer periods. But at a certain point, no amount of the opioid provides the same initial relief they felt.

Instead of teaching students just the warning signs of opioid abuse, or what to do if students know someone who’s addicted, we need to teach our students what to do when they’re prescribed opioids. Of course, taking only the recommended dosage is a starting point. But that doesn’t help students learn how to wean themselves off prescription pills, and how to properly dispose of them.

It’s important to teach students real situations they will encounter. Many have their wisdom teeth removed by the time they’re 25. About 61 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds are prescribed opioids after having their wisdom teeth removed. According to a 2016 clinical research study at the University of Pennsylvania, nearly 100 million opioids go unused nationally after wisdom tooth extraction. That means more opportunities for drug abuse and misuse. It’s not a matter of whether many people will have to wean themselves off opioids, it’s a matter of when. Our education should reflect this, and that starts with teaching students how to take a medication correctly, and how to stop taking a medication correctly.

My generation’s funeral visits generally aren’t spent laying American flags on coffins, and listening to 21-gun salutes, as our parents experienced during the Gulf War, and our grandparents with Vietnam. Rather, we spend our graveyard trips talking about “what went wrong,” and how the top athlete in high school fell from grace so fast. Our parents bury their children because Percocet and Oxycodone prescriptions became addictions, and their straight-A students got high off the contents of his or her medicine cabinets. And when those pills ran out, they turned to heroin.

There isn’t a cure-all for the opioid epidemic. Unfortunately, it will be a war my generation will have to continue to fight.

Melissa Holzberg is an intern with Newsday Opinion.

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