Everyone’s Problem: Libraries Confront the Opioid Crisis

Librarians are fighting the opioid crisis with information and social emotional learning strategies.

Illustration by Scott Bakal

About six years ago, Doug Ute, superintendent of the Newark (OH) City Schools, says he began to see the effects of addiction among his students. Kids would show up to school hungry, not bathed, and wearing dirty and unkempt clothing.

Since then, the issues have intensified. Student survey responses confirm what educators had suspected—that students, especially as they get older, are feeling a sense of hopelessness related to substance abuse at home. “Addiction affects all family members [and can lead to] violent homes and the lack of basic necessities, such as food and clothing,” Ute says. While some students are coping with having a parent who has an addiction problem, others are seeing substance use issues among siblings.

To address the growing numbers of students affected, the district has created a Social Emotional Academic Success (SEAS) team to help better identify staff members with the expertise to respond to students experiencing a crisis at home. In addition to serving breakfast every morning, schools send home backpacks of food and toiletries on the weekends.

School librarians, Ute adds, participate in the “fight against this terrible disease” by helping students and staff members find information about addiction. They also form bonds with students and protect their privacy when they ask for help.

Oxford (ME) Elementary School kids read Kate Messner’s The Seventh Wish,featuring a character with a substance abuse issue, and discussed addiction.
Photo courtesy of Melissa Guerrette

As in Newark, communities throughout Ohio have been hard hit by the sharp increase in opioid abuse and overdoses. Some refer to the state as the “epicenter” of addiction. Between 2015 and 2016, overdose deaths in Ohio increased from 3,050 to 4,050, with many of those new cases attributed to the use of fentanyl and related drugs, according to the Ohio Department of Health.

Nonetheless, the epidemic level of opioid abuse extends well beyond Ohio and the Northeast. According to survey results released earlier this year by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), almost 92 million adults in the United States misused prescription opioids in 2015. “The level of overdoses is a crisis, and it requires all of our efforts to turn the tide,” Kimberly A. Johnson, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment at SAMHSA, said in a statement.

The library field is responding. As part of a broad plan to address the issue, the Public Library Association hosted a September virtual town hall meeting in partnership with WebJunction, which provides online courses and webinars related to libraries. During the event, one of the speakers, Hadi Sedigh, an associate legislative director for justice and public safety with the National Association of Counties (NACo), alluded to the role that school and children’s librarians can play in protecting more young people from substance abuse.

“There is not going to be a single solution that’s going to turn the tide. Not a switch to flip to make it go away,” said Sedigh, also a liaison to the National City-County Task Force on the Opioid Epidemic, a joint project of NACo and the National League of Cities. “It’s important to highlight the importance of doing your individual part even if it feels minuscule or even if it feels you are not turning the tide overall, and to focus on prevention and education and not lose sight of the [greater] importance of stopping the revolving door of individuals becoming addicted,” he said.

Social emotional learning programs

Across the country, while some school districts are stocking up on Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, others are also deepening their efforts to implement social emotional learning (SEL) programs that support students who have a family member struggling with addiction and may help prevent students from following that same path.

“We know SEL can help young people learn to handle stressful situations in positive ways,” says James Vetter, executive director of the Social-Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts (SEL4MA), a 1,200-member volunteer advocacy organization. “We know that when we help young people to be able to recognize and manage emotions, recognize the feelings and perspectives of others, and navigate problem situations, these go right along with the risk and protective factors that influence whether someone might be more likely to get involved with substance abuse.”

SEL4MA is now focusing on coordinating multiple agencies across the state to work together and look at “what are we doing well and what can we do better,” Vetter says, to get people access to treatment and to prevent drug use among youth. In some states, public libraries are also part of community-wide efforts to educate the public and direct people who are addicted toward services and give patrons opportunities to share their experiences.

In Ute’s district, the SEAS team is also forging “external bonds,” says Ute, with social service agencies and area businesses to help students and their families affected by addiction.

Substance abuse in fiction

However, not all school districts are open to talking about how addiction is affecting their communities. Children’s author Kate Messner, whose book The Seventh Wish includes a character with an addiction problem, realized this when a school she was scheduled to visit as part of an East Coast book tour canceled.

“The librarian told me that she and her principal decided they hadn’t prepared students well enough for my visit and they were afraid my presentation might bring up questions they weren’t prepared to talk about,” Messner says. “It was heartbreaking, especially since that school serves many kids whose families have been impacted by addiction. We know the numbers, and we see stories on the news about children whose parents have overdosed in the car or on the Little League field. These kids don’t need to be further isolated by having stories that mirror their lives quietly censored.”

At other schools, however, librarians, teachers, parents, and students told Messner that the book—a retelling of the fairy tale “The Fisherman’s Wife”—started an important conversation and has even provided comfort to those who have experienced addiction in their own families.

“I loved reading this book, and it really helped me [with] what I was going through. My cousin has been fighting this drug for a long time and two days after I finished this book, heroin took him away from me forever,” a student named Olivia wrote to Messner. “I just want to express how much this book touched me and really made a difference for me even after he is gone. Thank you for making it so real and showing people the truth about this topic.”

At Oxford (ME) Elementary School, fifth grade teacher Melissa Guerrette read the book to her students, shared it with other teachers, and gave it to the police officer involved in the school’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program. As part of the school’s Healthy Choices unit, activities and discussions related to The Seventh Wish take place in humanities lessons. On her blog, “Educate, Empower, Inspire…Teach,” Guerrette wrote that “the brave and honest book let us all be at times inside and outside of the story, providing a safe distance and enlightened perspective to have important conversations about lots of big themes for kids, one of those being addiction.”

The Seventh Wish also led to an adapted project for the students’ D.A.R.E. graduation. Instead of writing the typical five-paragraph essay, students wrote letters to their 18-year-old selves about how they plan to make wise decisions while handling stressful situations.

The connection with the D.A.R.E. program was also timely. The organization, which has been criticized for its just-say-no approach, has retooled its curriculum in recent years and is now focusing on teaching students to make healthy decisions. In September, D.A.R.E. leaders announced that they were reviewing curriculum materials to add lessons on the opioid crisis in 2018.

Representatives from the Cleveland Clinic discuss the signs and dangers
of opioid addiction with staff at the Mentor (OH) Public Library.
Photo courtesy of Mentor Public Library

Libraries step up

Public librarians cities including Philadelphia and Denver are learning how to respond to overdose cases on-site, sometimes saving lives with Narcan. They are also joining school districts in increasing efforts to educate the public and give people a place to talk about how they can help friends and family members of those with substance use.

At the Gates Public Library in Rochester, NY, Anna Souannavong, acting assistant library director, says, “We aren’t first responders, but we are information professionals. I wanted to do something to provide the information to our community about what’s happening, because people trust the information that comes from libraries.”

When Souannavong organized a series of panel discussions on the opioid epidemic, the need for information was clear. It was standing room only in the library’s adult meeting room, with more than 100 additional people viewing the event via live stream. The panels brought together medical experts, addiction advocates, and law enforcement officials to share their experiences and answer questions. The gathering spurred further collaboration among professionals who didn’t previously know each other. An opioid recovery group, for example, worked with the town’s recreation department to create a space for people struggling with addiction or their family members to seek help.

“To get all of those professionals in one room and to talk about their different points of view—that was powerful,” says Souannavong. “Instead of duplicating what people are already doing, we can bring them here, share their knowledge, and help them to collaborate.”

Holly Eberle, a youth services librarian at the Crystal Lake (IL) Public Library, also experienced the power of connecting community resources when she helped to create A Way Out in McHenry County, an amnesty program that allows people dealing with opioid addiction to go into any participating police department, ask for help, and be admitted to a local addiction treatment program without facing criminal charges for substance abuse.

“A lot of people don’t have health insurance, so fancy rehab programs aren’t an option for them. And if you call, most programs are full, with a waiting list,” says Eberle, who learned about amnesty programs while volunteering with the nearby Crystal Lake Teen Center, which opened in 2014. The center’s president and founder is the mother of two of Eberle’s friends from high school, both of whom are struggling with opioid addiction. She saw the need to emphasize treatment over arresting people, but wasn’t sure how to get the program started.

“I started researching other amnesty programs in Illinois. I put together the information I found, got it to the right people, and brought them together so it could get off the ground,” says Eberle.

It couldn’t come at a better time for McHenry County. According to State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally, the county logs one fatal overdose per week.

“It seems like a pretty last resort for an addict, and the police departments were initially skeptical,” says Eberle. “Why would people turn themselves in? But we’ve had 30 people take advantage of it since it began in May, and we’re still working on getting the word out.”

The ROCovery Outreach center in Rochester, NY.
Photo courtesy of the Gates Police Department

Creating space for community awareness

The Cleveland Public Library (CPL) is also creating opportunities for patrons and parents to find resources and seek help.

“This is one of those issues we just can’t escape. Folks who had not had to deal with this type of [situation] in the past are on the front lines now,” says Felton Thomas, director of CPL, which has had many overdoses at its branches, but fortunately no deaths. “You really just can’t put your head in the sand and say ‘not in my neighborhood.’ We have to do something to help.”

Working with the Cleveland Clinic and a drug education organization called Start Talking! the library has begun hosting a yearlong series of panels that provide patrons with information on opioid abuse, including recognizing signs and symptoms of addiction and how to talk to children about drug abuse. The sessions allow community members to speak with a medical expert and learn about options for treatment.

“We have parents who are trying to figure out how to get their children help, folks who are trying to get themselves help, [and] people from organizations trying to figure out what they can do to be part of the solution,” says Thomas. “Sadly, in many of our neighborhoods, identifying the problem isn’t an issue, but identifying resources for treatment is. Having medical professionals in the room to direct them to the right place is very helpful.”

Approaching the issue from this perspective, rather than a law enforcement standpoint, has been key, says Aaron Mason, CPL assistant director of outreach and programming.

“It’s really about creating an environment where people feel like they can talk about it without creating repercussions,” says Mason. “Create an environment where people can feel comfortable coming in and getting the help that they need.”

In public and school libraries, as well as in classrooms, that help can come in the form of books, videos, or other educational materials.

“We need to stock books related to addiction in our school and classroom libraries as much as we shelve books about other big topics, like foster care, adoption, divorce, and terminal illness,” Guerrette says. “Books—stories—are powerful gateways for cultivating compassion and empathy. I hope that the approach we’re taking in my school sends the message to students that we care about them and are here to listen and be supportive.”

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This topic is so important! Our county in Maryland is currently reporting out Opiod overdoses daily, on their Facebook in order to bring awareness. It can be a sensitive subject to talk to the middle school students I teach, but it doesn't mean it should be ignored. There are so many resources we can fill the library with that could really help students who have family members that are dealing with addiction.

Posted : Nov 11, 2017 12:38

Cecily Wolfe

My recent YA novel, That Night, speaks to the problems of heroin availability and abuse, but primarily to the grief survivors must deal with, and was inspired by the problems my home state of Ohio has had over the past several years, as well as my friend's loss of multiple young family members to overdoses. Strangely enough, professional review sources have been reluctant to read and review it, as one noted that it is a "touchy" subject. Thank you for this article and for the honesty of it.

Posted : Nov 06, 2017 09:24

Michelle Baldini

Thank you for this timely and informative article. We all need to pull together to make sure there’s a program fighting this epidemic in every library in the country!

Posted : Nov 04, 2017 12:32



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