A panel of professionals who work closely with youths or the issues of drugs and alcohol in Santa Barbara County came together Thursday evening to talk about the youth opioid and fentanyl epidemic in an “Education Spotlight” forum hosted by the Santa Barbara County Education Office.
The panel, moderated by Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools Susan Salcido, included Melissa Wilkins, division chief of Alcohol and Drug Programs at the Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness; Deputy George Hedricks, community resource and school resource deputy with the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office; Dr. Carrick Adam, a pediatrician and medical director for the Santa Barbara County Juvenile Justice Center; and Pioneer Valley High School Principal Shanda Herrera.
The panelists discussed the trends of drugs and fentanyl-related overdoses in teenagers and adolescents.
“In 2016, there were only a total of six fentanyl-related opioid overdoses that resulted in death, and just in 2019, that number doubled to 12. … In 2021, that number increased to 75. That is a huge increase in a very short period of time,” Wilkins said. “It’s impacting individuals across all sociodemographic areas — it doesn’t matter what your income is, what your race is. This is a particular issue that’s impacting everyone, and it’s trending younger and younger.”
Some of the potential signs of problems with drugs that Wilkins mentioned include fatigue and drowsiness or “nodding off,” pinpoint pupils, health complaints such as constipation or nausea, changes in sleep patterns, deterioration of hygiene or personal appearance, as well as behavioral signs such as isolating from family and friends, change in friends, skipping school or work, lack of interest in hobbies, mood changes, increasing depression or anxiety, and more.
Herrera and Hedricks shared their experiences working with children and teenagers at schools and how, whether parents realize it or not, most youths are exposed to drugs.
“Teenagers today — they’re always on social media, and social media has a way of glamorizing and normalizing drug use,” Herrera said. “There are movies that [show] casual use is OK.”
Herrera said the schools in Santa Barbara County are carrying naloxone, also known as Narcan — an opioid overdose-reversal medication — on campus and training staff how to use it. She added that they also emphasize the health offices, security staff, and administrations knowing the signs of an overdose and how to administer Narcan.
Wilkins and Hedricks also emphasized how fentanyl can be made to look like other prescription opioids or mixed into other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and even marijuana.
“Our kids are not buying drugs legally or coming across drugs legally. There is no quality control — we don’t know whose hands this has passed through before they got it, who their drug dealer got it from,” Hedricks said. “As parents, what I’m suggesting is having those uncomfortable conversations. We all teach our kids at a very young age, ‘Just say no, don’t talk to strangers, turn down drugs,’ and then I don’t think we expound on that enough as the kids get older and we’re not going over current things or changes.”
As of 2020, drug overdose and poisoning was the third-leading cause of death in children and adolescents in the United States, according to Dr. Adam, who works with adolescents in juvenile detention centers in the county.
That includes intentional overdoses, as well as unintentional overdoses, such as a child accidentally getting into a family member’s pill.
“In the last two years, I have had to detox or do medical withdrawal for more kids in the last two years than in the 16 years prior that I’ve had to withdraw before that,” Adam said. “Adolescents and teenagers are uniquely at risk for trying drugs and alcohol, and they’re more vulnerable to the negative effects. … That’s because their brains are still developing.”
Adam explained how the prefrontal cortex — which is important for executive function, self-control and emotional regulation — is one of the last parts of the brain to develop, while the limbic system — which is the more emotional, impulsive part of the brain — develops earlier and is very prominent during adolescence.
“It’s not like being an adult. [Adolescents’] brains are different,” Adam said. “They are primed to act impulsively, they’ve been primed to want to experiment, they’re primed to try novel things, they’re primed to take risks. … It also makes them more likely to try drugs.”
The panelists closed out the forum by providing resources for substance use disorder treatment, prevention, where to get Narcan and how to administer it, and more.
Some of these resources included the Fentanyl Is Forever and One Pill Can Kill prevention campaigns and Naloxone Now SB, which allows anyone in Santa Barbara County to order Narcan kits free of charge.