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Students are being trained in how to use the overdose reversal drug Narcan

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Schools across the country are rushing to respond to the rise in opioid overdoses among teens. Sarah Y. Kim of member station WAMU reports from Arlington, Va. Students there are now allowed to carry Narcan, the nasal spray that can reverse overdoses.

SARAH Y KIM, BYLINE: Students who want to carry Narcan at Arlington Public Schools have to attend a training, like this drop-in session at the county Central Library.

EMILY SIQVELAND: You want to make sure it's in the nostril before you spray.

KIM: This is one of several trainings the county has been holding for students. Trainer Jim Dooley is using a CPR mannequin to demonstrate.

(SOUNDBITE OF THUDDING)

KIM: He's showing students what to do if a person is unresponsive.

JIM DOOLEY: So you put in the nostril, insert it...

KIM: It's not always clear if someone is experiencing an overdose, but trainer Emily Siqveland tells the group, you should still call 911 and administer Narcan.

SIQVELAND: It - you will not cause harm if you administer this when it's not needed, so keep that in mind. That's by far the most important thing I want you to take out of this conversation.

KIM: Narcan is not a substitute for medical care, but it can quickly prevent an overdose from becoming fatal. And it's easy to use - so easy that the training can take as little as 10 minutes. Wakefield High School student Pablo Swisher-Gomez says he's getting trained to keep his peers safe.

PABLO SWISHER-GOMEZ: You never know when something could happen.

KIM: One of his schoolmates died from an apparent overdose earlier this year. Swisher-Gomez says that drug use has a lot to do with bad mental health.

SWISHER-GOMEZ: The mental health stuff is real. People are more open about that now, which - I'm glad, but it's definitely still a struggle that people don't necessarily always talk about.

KIM: According to CDC data, overdose deaths among teenagers have been going up since the pandemic began, jumping by 94% from 2019 to 2020. That ongoing surge, as well as FDA approval of Narcan's over-the-counter use, has prompted more schools to allow students to carry the nasal spray. Emily Siqveland, Narcan trainer and opioid program manager for Arlington County's Department of Human Services, says parents in Arlington seem very supportive.

SIQVELAND: I think it also allows students to feel very empowered and to recognize how safe and effective this medication is. And this policy is one of those ways to communicate that.

KIM: Nora Volkow directs the National Institute on Drug Abuse. She says some school districts aren't making Narcan accessible because of a mistaken belief that it enables drug use.

NORA VOLKOW: The reality is that if you lose someone, all of your logic, all of your arguments are no longer valid. I mean, the person died. There's nothing else that can be done.

KIM: Volkow says teenagers can accidentally overdose after taking counterfeit pills. A pill made to look like Adderall, a common study drug, could be laced with fentanyl. Volkow says the spread of fentanyl is one of two major factors driving up overdose rates in recent years. The other is a pandemic which exacerbated mental health issues in young people.

Gloria Fosso, a junior at Washington-Liberty High, says there is more awareness now around youth mental health, but there are still not enough resources for young people.

GLORIA FOSSO: I would say that the help isn't coming at the rate as - of students needing the help. Like, more and more students are getting more and more depressed.

KIM: Fosso says that more parents need to see drug use as a mental health issue rather than a crime. But Fosso is optimistic that parents in Arlington will still embrace a new Narcan policy. The opioid crisis has hit the county hard this year, and she believes parents want their kids to be safe and keep others safe. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Y. Kim in Arlington, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sarah Y Kim WAMU/DCist