Gatepost survey finds opioid crisis has impacted one in three students

By Tessa Jillson

Editorial Staff

By Bailey Morrison

Associate Editor

By Shanleigh Reardon

News Editor


An unscientific survey of 500 students conducted by The Gatepost found 187 respondents, or 37.4 percent, know someone who has struggled with an opioid addiction.

The survey was administered from Nov. 6 to Nov. 20.

Sixteen respondents, or 3.2 percent, said they have struggled with an opioid addiction themselves.

Of the 500 students who responded, 167, or 33.4 percent, said they know someone who has died as a result of an opioid overdose.

The Gatepost survey results align with those of a survey conducted by FSU administrators.

Every three years, FSU asks students to complete The Core Alcohol and Drug Survey or The American College Health Survey, both of which ask questions about drug and alcohol use and health behaviors.

FSU updates The Core Survey every three years to include questions based on changing “drug trends,” said Joy LaGrutta, coordinator of campus alcohol and drug education and prevention at Framingham State. Topics added to the most recent survey include vaping and marijuana edibles.

According to The Core Survey administered to 500 students in the spring of 2017, 15.9 percent of FSU students have used an illegal drug other than marijuana, and 5.8 percent of students are currently using an illegal drug.

Of the students who took The Core Survey at FSU, 3.4 percent said they use opiates, compared to 2.4 percent of the 125,371 students surveyed from 288 institutions nationwide.

LaGrutta said she wasn’t surprised FSU, along with other Massachusetts colleges, reported having a higher opioid use rate than the national average.

The statistics are not at all unusual since Massachusetts has “a higher than national average rate of opiate use,” she added

Massachusetts and the Northeast are where “the opioid epidemic in the country is hitting the hardest,” she said.

Susan Massad, a professor and health education specialist, said the opioid epidemic “reared its head” after OxyContin prescriptions became popular in the medical field.

Massad, who teaches a course called Drugs, Alcohol, and Addictive Behavior, said to manage pain after surgery, doctors would traditionally give patients morphine and then were they were “weaned off of it.”

She said OxyContin became popular in the late 1990s. Because it is more potent and it is “extremely, highly addictive,” people started using it recreationally.

She said people turned to heroin because it was “cheaper and easier to access than OxyContin.”

When OxyContin first became popular, there was “a rash of drugstore break-ins. People were desperate to get OxyContin. What we know now is that it was completely unnecessary for doctors to be prescribing it for pain,” she added. 

Massad said, “It’s too potent. Too addictive. Not necessary in most cases. There wasn’t enough patient education or enough medical supervision around OxyContin. If it was more tightly supervised – if patients were given it in lower doses and weaned off of it and given education about withdrawal symptoms – I don’t think the crisis would be as severe as it is now.”

Massad said while the over-prescription and lack of supervision of OxyContin was a defining factor in the epidemic, another problem was the “widespread tainting” of heroin with Fentanyl. “The combination of the two is extremely toxic,” she said.

Massad shared a story of a former student whose boyfriend died of a heroin overdose. Massad hired the student as an interior designer to work in her home and the student’s boyfriend came with her to Massad’s house.

“A year later, I had her come back to do another job and I asked her how her boyfriend was. She looked at me funny and said, ‘Oh, you didn’t hear? He died.’ I thought, ‘What happened? A 24-year-old died suddenly?’

“She told me he was in a car accident. He was given OxyContin, went through extreme withdrawal after taking it, and resorted to heroin usage and he died.

“I know these stories are rampant in Massachusetts,” Massad said.

She added, “It’s scary. I don’t really know the answer. We used to think heroin was something that was really not that common. We knew how dangerous it was. A pretty small percentage of the population was using it, and it was associated with a high crime rate because people were going to great lengths to support their habit.”

She said the death rate in the 1990s was nowhere as high as it is now. The epidemic hits every socioeconomic and racial background.

Lorretta Holloway, vice president of enrollment and student development, who sits on the board of Wayside Youth and Family Services, said someone working there initially brought the issue of opioid addiction to her attention.

“Someone on the board works for the public schools and wanted to know, ‘Do you have Narcan on your campus?’ … And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know. I’ll have to go and find out.’”

She said, “A university is a microcosm of what is happening in society at large.” She wasn’t shocked one-third of students knew people who died of an opioid overdose or struggled with addiction themselves.

FSUPD Sgt. Martin Laughlin said a new state policy regarding opioid overdoses was issued in February 2015, allowing FSUPD to carry Narcan.

Sociology professor Vincent Ferraro said his interest in drug use comes from a sociological perspective where he looks at how society defines drugs and drug use.

Ferraro teaches a course called Drugs, Social Control, and the Law.

He said one of the first populations to experience addiction in the United States was military veterans after the Civil War. He said because they were a largely “non-threatening population,” the response was not to criminalize drug use at the time.

He said another large population that suffered from addiction was housewives, who were also considered non-violent and non-threatening.

Ferraro said the view of drug use changes based on who the users are. In marginalized communities, “the response is usually much more punitive – to do something about the drugs and the people using them. Often, the response is not to treat it as a health problem, or a public health problem, but to respond with the justice system.”

He said, “That was certainly the case with racial minorities and crack cocaine. It was the case with homosexual users and methamphetamine.

“I think when we take a sociological view, we can see there are a lot of inconsistencies with how we respond to drug use and drug users. It’s not so much about the drugs themselves – it’s about the people using them,” Ferraro said.

He added treating heroin as a public health issue is based on the population using heroin now compared to the past. “We’re seeing a public response to a major drug epidemic that’s really treating it as a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue.

“If the end goal is to incarcerate large numbers of a population, then a punitive model is the way to go. If the end goal is to reduce harms associated with the use, then a public health model would be more effective,” Ferraro said.

Junior Rebecca Moffat said many people in her family have struggled with drug addiction, specifically with heroin. Moffat said, “It’s made me really nervous. When I broke an arm, I refused to take pain killers. I was terrified I was going to get addicted.”

She told a story about her cousin who began smoking marijuana and taking pills at a young age before turning to heroin use. Moffat’s cousin became pregnant and stopped using heroin until after the baby was born. About four months after the birth, she relapsed, lost custody of her child and ended up in jail.

Moffat said many people don’t understand how hard it is for addicts to get clean. “People don’t understand rehab doesn’t help unless you want help. You can go and the court can issue it – if you don’t want to be there, it’s not going to help.”

Moffat added many people don’t understand the severity of withdrawal. “People don’t realize how bad it is – withdrawal is scary as shit. It’s very hard to see how things are going to improve after you’ve been using for so long.”

Massad said withdrawal symptoms from heroin are severe. Hours after an individual stops using heroin, they may experience gastrointestinal cramps, diarrhea, nausea, sweating and shaking.   

According to Ilene Hofrenning, director of the FSU Health Center, medication-assisted treatments, such as methadone, are not prescribed by the campus Health Center, but there are facilities in Framingham that students can be referred to by the Health Center.

One of the facilities is Spectrum Health, which is located at 68 Franklin Street, approximately 2 miles from campus.

According to Sandra Beatty, director of programs at Spectrum Health, methadone is a medicinal treatment for opioid addiction. Methadone is an opiate-based drug administered by professionals to individuals recovering from an addiction to an opiate such as heroin.

Beatty said if someone is being treated with methadone at her facility, they must be receiving counseling and medical check-ups after not using any opioids for an extended period of time.

She said methadone is “really a replacement for the opioid. So, it goes in and it fills the opioid receptors and stops the withdrawal symptoms.”

Unlike other opioids, methadone stays in one’s system continuously for about 24 hours and does not give any sort of “high” to its users, said Beatty.

The Gatepost spoke with an FSU student who asked to remain anonymous about her experience with addiction. She will be referred to as Cindy.

Cindy said she struggled with addiction for almost five years. This past summer, she relapsed for the second time and was sent to a Suboxone clinic.

Suboxone, like methadone, is a substance that is less addictive than other opioids and prevents an addict from experiencing withdrawal symptoms. 

Cindy said the clinic was the “only place” that would take her after she was in the hospital for two weeks and in a dual program for another four weeks as a result of her drug abuse. She said the clinic was not helpful for her because she had already stopped using.

“The people that were going in there were actively using. They were shooting up,” she said. “They didn’t want to help me besides give me Suboxone, basically. … I saw a therapist there and he was like, ‘You don’t fit the profile here. I don’t want to see you if you’re not doing Suboxone.’”

Aside from referring to medication-assisted treatments such as methadone and Suboxone, FSU offers counseling services to anyone who would like to see a counselor regularly for anything addiction-related.

Paul Welch, director of the Counseling Center at FSU, said, “We would meet with students and assess their current situations – social supports, what particular triggers might be occurring for them that make them want to use.”

He added it’s important for people to understand that addiction “is a medical issue, not a moral issue.”

Welch urged students “not to blame themselves, but to understand that this is something that really requires serious medical attention and specialized attention – that treatment is good. It’s effective, and it can help them to recover,” he said.

Three-hundred-two student respondents in The Gatepost survey, or 60.4 percent, were unaware of the resources available at FSU for those struggling with addiction.

Three-hundred-twenty-four student respondents, or 64.8 percent, believe FSU does not provide adequate resources for someone struggling with an opioid addiction.

The Gatepost spoke with another FSU student who asked to remain anonymous about his experience seeking help for his addiction from the Health Center. This person will be referred to as John.

John said he struggled academically in college because of his drug abuse and visited the Counseling Center to receive help.

The first time he visited the Counseling Center, John said he was directed to drug addiction specialists. “When I asked whether they knew any information for hotlines to call, they were unaware of any. That seemed strange. In general, they weren’t helpful. But I don’t know how helpful anyone can be if you’re choosing to destroy yourself.”

The second time he visited the Counseling Center, John was asked to fill out a form and list all the drugs he has used. “At that point, I had been clean for a while and needed some guidance with other things. But because of that form, all the counselors wanted to talk about with me was drugs. I felt like that form didn’t really allow me to express my problems in my own terms. A history of drug abuse doesn’t define an individual’s experience and I think people forget that, including professionals,” he said.

He added, “They’re trying their best, I think. Everyone is. It’s a complicated issue. Everyone needs to focus on being compassionate at all costs, all the time. Compassion, love and forgiveness are medicines for all human suffering. … There isn’t much people can do to fix it. So, society needs to do a better job at helping people before they get so desperate that they become dependent on poison.”

Cindy said after she got out of the hospital, she had difficulty finding a psychiatrist and therapist who would help her.

“No one wanted to take me because I had an addiction,” she said.

Cindy was rejected by three or four therapists before one finally accepted her. “Therapy was hard to find. I think, because once you come out of a hospital for addiction, they’re like, ‘You need something more than we can provide.’ Psychiatry is a liability issue. So, it’s like, ‘We can’t handle you because what if we prescribe you something and you get addicted?’” she said.

Cindy said she is debating whether she should disclose her addiction next time she seeks a therapist.

Welch said many people who become addicted to opioids start by using prescribed painkillers after getting surgery or suffering an injury.

They may continue using because of the relief the drugs provide from underlying anxiety or depression that may have gone untreated before the circumstance that introduced opiate pain killers to the person’s life, added Welch.

Cindy started using opioids after she had surgery.

“I had a surgery, got the prescription, didn’t use them and then they sat in my cabinet. I started having mental illness issues and then I started using them and then I started relying on them. But obviously, I ran out, so then I stole from my parents,” she said.

Her parents were also prescribed pills such as Oxycodone, OxyContin, Vicodin and morphine after surgeries they underwent.

She added, “They would just get stashed up in the medicine cabinet. … So, I just scoured and found whatever – an endless supply of pills.”

FSU has a campus-wide amnesty policy, which applies to drugs and alcohol. This policy protects students from disciplinary action if they choose to report themselves or someone they know to FSUPD or Residence Life staff in the case of a medical emergency.

Glenn Cochran, director of Residence Life, said, “In most cases, FSU students who make a report for medical assistance do so simply because they care and know the person may need assistance.

“The medical amnesty policy, as well as the anonymous tip line, can only increase reporting and improve safety,” he added.

LaGrutta said the University doesn’t have a drug treatment center on campus, but if someone is struggling with opiates, the Counseling Center would help get that person off-campus referrals, such as intensive in- or outpatient treatment centers and detox.

She added the Counseling Center also provides pamphlets that list places where people can receive help, but it’s all based “on their insurance. So, if you needed a medical detox or a medical appointment, you might want to check with your own insurance to see where you’re covered.”

Cochran said Residence Life “also works closely with FSUPD when there is a medical emergency – they have a protocol for emergency medical response and can also administer Narcan as needed/appropriate.”

According to Health Center Director Hofrenning, “Narcan (naloxone) is a rapid-acting opioid antagonist, which means that it competes with and displaces opioids at opioid receptor sites in the brain.”

She said, “When someone overdoses on an opioid, it causes central nervous system depression, during which that person stops breathing. Brain damage can occur within 4-6 minutes of lack of oxygen to the brain.

“This is why it’s critical for us to have it on campus – if someone is experiencing respiratory depression due to opioids, they need Narcan immediately,” said Hofrenning.

FSUPD Sgt. Martin Laughlin said he has not seen any drug-related issues on campus but “if someone’s unconscious due to a drug-related episode, we do administer the Narcan. … We call the Framingham Fire Department and the Framingham ambulance, and we would do what we can on scene until they got there.”

According to Laughlin, FSUPD’s Narcan supply expires and is replaced every year. FSUPD currently has 14 doses – two doses per cruiser and four units as backup – costing approximately $45 per dose. They also are equipped with defibrillators and medical bags.

Depending on the situation, a person might be arrested or sent to court and charged with possession of an illegal substance, said Laughlin. “If they have a bundle of heroin on them, they’re probably going to jail. If it’s for personal use and maybe two pills … we document it and maybe we’re like, ‘All right, don’t do it again.’ But are we really helping them?

“It’s all a case-by-case scenario,” he said.

LaGrutta and the Wellness Center staff have been organizing information tables in the McCarthy Center as a way to educate students about different drugs. She said they have conducted outreach programming to increase awareness and poster campaigns in the past to share the information collected by The Core Survey.

Most people don’t know what drug addiction is really like because it’s so personal and private, LaGrutta said. “There’s stigma around it.

“The main goal, I think with college students, is to educate them,” she said. “Hoping that you’re planting seeds so that students can make good decisions on their own.”

Cindy said, “It’s a disease, but a lot of people refuse to call it a disease. There’s a lot of stigma around it and, you know, that’s why we have to do this anonymously, because a lot of people don’t look at it that way. … It makes me feel like I’m diseased, but diseased in a way that you don’t talk about it, and it’s not OK.”