The last six months have been brutal for the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District in Texas. Nearly a dozen students have overdosed on fentanyl between September and March. Three of them died. If you’re thinking, Texas has a problem, the truth is far more sobering. America has a problem, and it’s killing our children — and at younger and younger ages.
Make no mistake: Fentanyl is in your backyard. And shockingly, it’s not just in your high schools. It’s now in the hands of your sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. The parent of a fourteen-year-old in the Carrollton community who survived a fentanyl overdose this year said, “I never thought in a middle school there would be drugs like this.” Unfortunately, there are. Denial won’t save our children. Only aggressive action will.
First, we must warn them about the dangers of this deadly drug (in a way that they can hear). Second, we must do everything in our power to shore up their mental health so they won’t turn to substance misuse to begin with.
We must talk frankly to children about the dangers of fentanyl and other drugs starting very young. Middle school is too late. Tell it to them straight: Misuse substances and you may die. Explain that people who make drugs add fentanyl to the mix to keep buyers coming back. And since this opioid is so lethal — and it’s so hard to get the formula right — it’s easy to cause overdose. If you happen to get the wrong pill (the one with a crumb too much fentanyl), you die.
Yes, it’s a tough conversation to have with an elementary school child. But if you wait until they’re older, they may already have friends who are misusing substances, seemingly with no consequences. They may have tried drugs themselves or even be (already) struggling with addiction. And it’s impossible to “scare” a person who is addicted into stopping.
Plus, we can’t tackle the substance misuse epidemic without also addressing the mental health epidemic. The two are intertwined. Anxiety and depression rates are higher than ever. Suicide ideation is skyrocketing. Students are buckling under an avalanche of challenges that undermine their wellbeing. Academic pressures. Social media addiction. Poor health habits. (And don’t forget the impact of COVID-19 and its aftermath, which exacerbated the problems.)
Parents are well aware of these issues. We lose sleep over them. And when something does go wrong with a child, too often we discover the resources in place to help are overwhelmed, or broken, or so disjointed we can’t navigate them.
It’s a huge problem that calls for a systemic solution. We must all make changes: communities, schools, families, and, of course, young people themselves. But in the meantime, parents play a huge and immediate role. There’s a lot we can do to support our children’s mental health and set them up to become resilient adults. The key is helping them find what they crave most: joy.
Our culture steals joy from young people (from all of us, really). There is too much wrong (stress, isolation, peer pressure) and too little right (strong relationships, good health habits, faith). We can improve the odds for our children by engaging them young in conversations on what brings them joy and what steals it from them. Rather than telling them what we think they should do, we can ask open-ended questions and truly listen.
We can shore up our children’s mental health by giving them a wellbeing “toolbox.” This means instilling habits like getting enough sleep and exercise, limiting social media, and finding something bigger than themselves to believe in. When taking care of their bodies, minds, and spirits becomes second nature, they’ll have the resources to create and nurture a lifetime of joy.
There is a reason I’m passionate about this subject. In 2012, my son Hudson nearly died from an accidental drug overdose in college. Thankfully, he made a full recovery. But then, in 2013, I found the body of my precious firstborn son, William, after a fatal (and accidental) overdose. I wouldn’t wish the horror of these experiences on any other parent. I have dedicated the rest of my life to helping prevent them.
Stopping the fentanyl crisis won’t be quick or easy. The challenges we face as parents, educators, and community members are truly daunting. However, I believe they are not insurmountable. What I know is that denial and despair won’t help our children. Taking these crucial actions will. Our children deserve a chance to thrive. We deserve the joy of watching it happen.
About David Magee:
David Magee is the best-selling author of Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis and Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss. A changemaker in student and family mental health and substance misuse, he’s the creator and director of operations of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi and a frequent K–12 and university educational and motivational speaker. He also hosts The Mayo Lab Podcast with David Magee, a one-of-its-kind program for parents aimed at helping students and families find lasting wellbeing. Learn more at www.daviddmagee.com.