On College Campuses, Making Overdose Medication Readily Available College campuses are growing increasingly concerned about how to keep students safe amid a national opioid crisis. Some schools provide free and easy access to drugs that can reverse an overdose.

On College Campuses, Making Overdose Medication Readily Available

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Opioid deaths are thought to be rare on college campuses. But since the opioid epidemic, young adults are now among those at high risk for overdose, so some schools aren't taking chances. NPR's Tovia Smith reports on the new effort to keep students safe.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: One of the first things colleges are doing is teaching students to recognize an opioid overdose and what to do.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Is he sleeping?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He's not waking up.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) No, there's a needle in his arm. Taylor?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) His lips are blue.

SMITH: Ohio University is using this video dramatization...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Come on, Taylor.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) He must have overdosed.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Do you have Narcan?

SMITH: ...To show how Narcan, the drug known generically as naloxone, can reverse an overdose.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He's starting to wake up.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Taylor) Where are we?

SMITH: Ohio University is one of many schools that make Narcan available through health services and campus police. Several other schools are starting to distribute the drug more broadly.


ROBERT MCEVOY: As you can see, right at the main entrance, we have the AED cabinet.

SMITH: At Bridgewater State University south of Boston, campus police detective Sergeant Robert McEvoy points out one of 60 defibrillator boxes on campus that are now also stocked with little bottles of Narcan nose spray, all clearly labeled in red as opioid overdose kits and all free for the taking.

MCEVOY: We felt that it was on the university to provide these because it's a life-saving drug, and we're in the midst of an epidemic that affects everybody.

SMITH: Shortly after a student died of an overdose in 2016, police put Narcan in every dorm and parking lot and trained more than a thousand people to administer it.

MCEVOY: All you would do is you peel this back. You would hold it like this, put the tip into the patient's nostril.

ISAIAH ROSEMAN: About three-quarters an inch down into their nasal passage. And then you just give it one spray, and then you're done.

SMITH: That's junior Isaiah Roseman, one of the resident advisers who've been trained.

ROSEMAN: Yeah, I'm prepared. I'm ready. And I think personally I feel like it's my moral obligation to help someone who has overdosed. It could honestly save another person's life.

SMITH: Students like Nick Vicente say it's comforting not just for the small number of people who may be heroin users but also everyone using other street drugs like cocaine, which is sometimes laced with opioids like fentanyl unbeknownst to users.

NICK VICENTE: Honestly I feel like a lot of kids are worried 'cause that's when problems can definitely happen and then overdose can definitely be a reality.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: I think it's good to make Narcan available, but it's a really tricky situation.

SMITH: This student from a different university says he spent about 10 years battling addiction. He asked not to be identified to avoid harming future job prospects. During his college years, he says he overdosed twice and kept failing classes. But he says that was before schools were set up to recognize or support students with drug addictions.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: They didn't want to acknowledge the problem. Like, everything's fine at our school. But, (laughter) I mean, it was probably blatantly obvious, honestly. I was - it was pretty bad.

SMITH: Now, one and a half years sober, he's back in a new school and works in a campus recovery center the likes of which barely existed even a few years ago. His school has also just started giving free Narcan to students but only if they ask for it. He worries many users or their friends would be too afraid to do that. But he says he also sees the downside to just leaving it out for people to take anonymously.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: The con to that is you have no way of offering them further help. The only way that we can help them is if we know who it is.

SMITH: As colleges struggle to work out best practices, some say parents can't afford to just stand by and wait.

JILLIAN BAUER-REESE: Unfortunately colleges haven't really caught up. And I think parents need to take it into their own hands.

SMITH: Jillian Bauer-Reese teaches at Temple University, where two students died of overdoses last year. She says when kids head off to college, parents should send them with Narcan as well as fentanyl testing strips.

BAUER-REESE: Just like they would send them with condoms to encourage them to have safer sex, they can create, like, a safer drug use kit for them too.

SMITH: She dismisses concerns that it may actually encourage more drug use.

BAUER-REESE: Like, I don't think that if your, you know, student was planning on studying for their exam that having fentanyl (laughter) testing strips in their drawer is going to be calling their name to go out and buy drugs and try them.

SMITH: But others question such broad-based strategies, especially for schools with scarce resources. Even with school discounts, Narcan runs about $75 for two doses. Emergency kits contain two just in case. At Bridgewater State University, none of the kits put out last year have been taken yet. And in the two years since the University of Texas at Austin launched a similar initiative, several kits placed off campus have been successfully used. But program director Lucas Hill says all those on campus remain untouched.

LUCAS HILL: This is at least one data point that says that may not be cost-effective. And so we'll see. Maybe on campus is not the hotspot.

SMITH: Hill's now considering placing kits instead at convenience stores and bars. But he cautions naloxone alone is not the answer. Colleges also need to beef up treatment and recovery programs. Preventing an overdose death, he says, is not the same thing as curing addiction. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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