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Op-ed: Education to address the alarming rate of opioid deaths in Utah

This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison)
This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison)
Patrick Sison, AP

The staggering rate at which Utahns are dying from opioid-related drug overdoses continues to devastate Utah families. As many grieve the deaths of loved ones who were gripped by addiction — we are left to wonder — why is this happening?

It’s a question I have frequently asked myself while serving as an LDS bishop in downtown Salt Lake City. I have asked other questions, too. Why is a 24-year-old man who had a bright future in a casket in front of me? Why did drugs prescribed for a surgery tear apart a family? Why do people who want to get better keep going back to using drugs again and again?

On Thursday, I sponsored an appropriation in Public Education Appropriations that would provide one-time funding for a program called Opioid Crisis Education Curriculum. It’s a science-based approach to teaching Utah’s schoolchildren about the biological impacts opioids have on people.

The funding would further expand and develop a free, online module coinciding with middle school and high school science and health standards. The curriculum would be developed this summer by Utah teachers with assistance from genetics researchers from the University of Utah.

With an entire nation facing the opioid crisis, President Donald Trump has publicly turned away from treatment in favor of enforcement. If Operation Rio Grande is ultimately successful, it will be because we have turned our focus toward education and treatment of Utahns suffering from addiction, not crime and punishment.

It’s very easy to lose control with these very powerful drugs. We should teach young people why that’s the case.

When an opioid is consumed, it dulls pain and mimics the body’s natural pleasure signals at levels hundreds of times higher than normal. The brain tries to counterbalance and subdues its response to the pleasure, robbing someone of ability to feel natural pleasure. Depression, discomfort and withdrawal set in — and people often seek more serious drugs or higher doses of over-the-counter medication. This is how addiction takes hold of Utahns.

Amy Hawkins, a post-doctoral fellow of the U. Genetic Science Learning Center, summed up why this curriculum should fit with Utah’s current prevention education in a Feb. 7 Deseret News article.

"We think this curriculum is necessary because opioids are different from other drugs,” she said. “It's not legal for children to possess or consume alcohol, but children are being prescribed opioids.”

A science teacher from Saratoga Springs echoed the sentiment.

“Most adults don't understand that drugs include over-the-counter medicine,” said April Thompson, a science teacher at Lakeview Academy. “Students never make the connection; the word opioid means nothing to them. They also don't understand addiction or the brain. If we want this crisis to stop, we must educate students. Giving them the scientific understanding will allow them to make informed decisions and avoid the horrible pitfalls of this addiction. Science allows students to question, research, analyze and argue.”

Opioid-related deaths have increased in virtually every one of Utah’s 29 counties over the past decade, taking at least 635 lives in 2016. That same year, 280 people died on Utah roads.

This is the scope of the crisis.

I hope my colleagues see the potential power of this program. It teaches addiction isn’t a sin but instead an issue of biology. It teaches addiction isn’t selective. It bolsters what it means to be drug-free. It also helps answer that difficult question — why this is happening to so many Utahns.