“We Have Some Work to Do”: Colleges Discuss Campus Drug Use

About 200 higher education administrators and campus health leaders from across the northeast gathered at the University of Vermont Thursday for a conference called Mental Health Matters. One of the many topics discussed in a series of panel discussions and presentations was substance abuse by college students.

Pointing to data from the ongoing University of Michigan national study called Monitoring the Future, which showed 26 percent of high school seniors had been drunk in the past 30 days of 2013 and 36 percent of college students smoked marijuana in year before the survey, the director of student health services for UVM said substance abuse is something all higher education institutions must confront.

"We have some work to do," said Dr. Jon Porter.

Porter said UVM is now working on launching a comprehensive plan to better reach students and families about substance abuse, aiming to stress good decision-making and the importance of focusing on academics. He said a panel of faculty, staff, and students submitted a series of recommendations to UVM President Tom Sullivan, who Porter said is currently evaluating those suggestions.

"This is culture change," Porter said. "It’s going to take a while to do this, and I think it’s the university’s intention to take it on."

Referring to marijuana and alcohol use, UVM assistant dean of students Patience Whitworth said the old phrase of "just say no" just doesn’t resonate with students in 2015.

"One thing we’ve really tried to be clear on is this isn’t about abstinence, this isn’t about saying, 'Don’t partake in it,’ but it’s about, 'Where do you find that line for yourself?'" Whitworth explained.

Whitworth and Porter said drunkenness and highs from marijuana have significant impacts on students’ abilities to complete assignments or function effectively in classes the next day, which is what the university’s planning wants to address.

"We think about the impact on this environment of learning and engagement: if you're impaired in any way, then you're not able to fully take advantage of the environment," Whitworth added.

While marijuana and alcohol use may be more common among college students, the high-profile overdoses last month from the party drug Molly, similar to ecstasy, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut demonstrate that hard drugs are a challenge for higher education, too.

The Monitoring the Future study showed in 2013, 5.3 percent of college students used ecstasy in the prior year. Narcotic painkillers, such as OxyContin and Vicodin, were used by 5.4 percent of college students in the past year, that same study showed.

Skip Gates of Skowhegan, Maine, lost his son, Will, to a heroin overdose nearly six years ago. Heroin, chemically similar to drugs such as OxyContin, was dubbed a public health crisis in Vermont in 2014 by Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vt.

"I still wake up at night crying," Gates told New England Cable News Thursday. "When you lose a child unexpectedly, there’s a hole in your heart that never heals."

Will Gates was a standout science student at the University of Vermont. Since his death, Will’s dad has crisscrossed New England speaking to young people about the potential dangers of experimenting with strong painkillers or heroin.

Gates also appears prominently in the documentary film called The Opiate Effect. Available free online, the documentary sends a clear message that overdose deaths can happen quickly, even to smart kids like Will Gates who are attending college.

"You have this newfound personal freedom," Skip Gates said of college students. "But you need to temper that with individual responsibility. It’s a fine edge; and if you fall off the edge, disaster can result – as it did with my son William."

Gates said he hopes colleges and universities, including the University of Vermont, strongly consider implementing regular presentations to incoming freshmen about the risks of potentially deadly drug overdoses. 

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