Helping Students Research and Understand the Opioid Crisis 

7 min read

| By Elizabeth Mohn |

Learning about current events helps students understand more about their communities and other communities around the world. In the United States and numerous other countries, the opioid epidemic and its effects have been important news events for years. However, new factors and developments mean that the story is constantly evolving. Since the 1990s, opioid drug usage and resulting overdoses have increased dramatically in the United States; and in 2020, roughly 69,000 adults in the United States died of opioid overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These alarming trends also mean that millions of Americans have been affected by the opioid crisis in some way, and this crisis is among many important factors impacting Americans’ lives. Teachers can help their students better understand the crisis, its origins, its effects, and the fight to end it by accessing the new Gale In Context: High School Opioid Crisis portal.

The new Gale In Context: High School Opioid Crisis portal provides teachers and students with numerous resources that allow classes and individuals to study various aspects of the opioid crisis. For example, teachers can help students learn about the crisis’s origins using resources in the new portal. The portal’s overview is a valuable resource that helps students better understand the crisis, including its background and development. Teachers can also encourage students to listen to the audio broadcast “Tracing America’s Plunge into an Opioid Crisis” from NPR. The broadcast outlines ways the U.S. government failed to reduce or end the epidemic over numerous decades. Students can learn even more about the U.S. government’s role in the crisis’s origins in the article “The Nixon-era Roots of Today’s Opioid Crisis.” The article examines how the U.S. government’s so-called War on Drugs raged for decades, criminalizing drug users rather than treating addiction as a public health crisis. Further, the article links the War on Drugs with racial discrimination, as the policy focused on fighting drug abuse mostly in urban areas, where Black and Latino Americans lived in higher numbers.

Teachers can also encourage students to examine the opioid crisis from other perspectives. For example, the resources available in the Opioid Crisis portal can help students investigate how different groups in the United States have been impacted by the crisis. Students may be interested in learning how the crisis has negatively impacted Americans of all ages, including young children. The article “Children under 5 Are Increasingly Victims of Opioid Epidemic, Study Finds” from CNN states that opioid poisonings among children under five years increased as the overall opioid crisis worsened.

Learning about the potent impact opioids have had on different groups will help students better understand the opioid crisis. In addition, it may help them develop an understanding of their communities and other communities. Teachers can encourage students to access the audio broadcast “How the Opioid Crisis Is Affecting Native Americans” to learn how the opioid crisis has affected Native American communities. By listening to the broadcast, students will receive a firsthand account of the crisis through commentary from Dr. Ron Shaw, who was president of the Association of American Indian Physicians. The interview covers the effects of the crisis on Native American populations and the need for education about the effects of opioids and opioid addiction in communities. Teachers may also suggest that students listen to the broadcast “The Opioid Crisis Is Surging in Black, Urban Communities,” which describes the impact of the opioid crisis on some Black communities and highlights the danger of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl.  

Teachers could also encourage students to research the crisis in terms of the actions various people and organizations have taken to try to end it. Resources in the portal can help students better understand that governments, public health professionals, and individual health-care providers have tried various methods to end—or at least contain—the epidemic. For example, teachers may suggest students read the article “Tracking the Opioid Crisis: Inside the DEA’s Secret Lab.” From the article, students will learn that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) tests street drugs to better understand opioids, specifically synthetic opioids, that drug users are being sold. One reason the DEA tests the drugs is so they can try to identify when a surge of overdoses will likely happen because of particularly potent batches of drugs. The article will also help students understand that illicit drugs are unregulated and can cause overdoses and deaths, in part because illicit drugs can contain unverified amounts of fentanyl and other synthesized opioids.

Other resources can help students understand specific tools, programs, and medications used by public health officials and health-care professionals to combat the opioid crisis. Medical professionals have attempted numerous courses of treatment, including prescribing methadone and other drugs meant to help curb addiction and using counseling and other mental health treatments. In the article “Medication for Opioid Addiction Is Getting Easier to Access,” students can learn how methadone and other medications for opioid addiction have become easier to prescribe and access in the United States. The article will help students learn why governments and public health officials hope such changes will help control opioid addiction and reduce overdoses.

Students might also be interested in the article “The Opioid Crisis: How Counselors Can and Should Respond” from the Journal of Mental Health Counseling. It encourages all counselors, even those who don’t specialize in addiction, to look for signs of substance abuse disorders and encourage patients suspected of a disorder to seek treatment or refer such patients to other health-care professionals with more substance abuse disorder experience. The article also encourages counselors to take actions on a personal level, such as appropriately disposing of opioid medications, which could help reduce the harm caused by the epidemic.

Students who have learned about the origins of, effects of, and possible treatments for the opioid crisis may also be interested in learning about how Americans have begun to hold numerous pharmaceutical companies accountable, as these companies have been accused of fueling the epidemic by downplaying the addictive nature of opioids and by aggressively marketing the drugs to health-care professionals. For many Americans, the name Sackler has become synonymous with the opioid epidemic, as the family’s company, Purdue Pharma, made the prescription opioid OxyContin, which has been cited as one of the factors that fueled the early opioid crisis. In the audio broadcast “For the First Time, Victims of the Opioid Crisis Formally Confront the Sackler Family,” students can listen to a news story about Americans who were affected by the opioid crisis confronting the Sacklers and about their company’s role in the dramatic increase in overdose deaths in the United States since the 1990s. Teachers can also encourage students to watch a video from the Washington Post, “Mallinckrodt Executives Testify on Opioid Crisis.” Mallinckrodt was another pharmaceutical manufacturer that produced and sold opioids. The video includes clips of Mallinckrodt executives testifying in depositions that were part of a national lawsuit in the United States involving two dozen drug companies. The video can help students understand more about the people and organizations blamed for their role in the crisis.  

When discussing and researching a current, influential issue such as the opioid crisis, teachers can help their students better understand the different dimensions of the topic by accessing the many different resources available in Gale In Context: High School.

About the Author

Elizabeth Mohn is a writer and an educational content developer. When she’s not reading or writing, Elizabeth is usually spending time with her family, listening to podcasts, or working in her garden.

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