In 2016, according to one national study, Wilmington, North Carolina, was named as the city having the highest rate of opioid misuse in the nation. A quick Google search shows there are other cities that have also cited opioid use and misuse as their number one issue. Much like being named the top party school in the country, this is not something that one hopes for or is proud of.  Drug use and abuse is not what any city or university wants to be known for. But can you leverage such distinction?

Leonard and Wesner
Pat Leonard (left) and Dr. Katrin A. Wesner

While we would all agree that opioids are a major issue in the United States, not all college campuses would agree that it is their number one issue, nor would all agree that this is a big issue on campus. Looking back on our National College Health Assessment and local surveys, there is not a lot of opioid use reported by UNCW students. Rather, the misuse of other prescription drugs, the rising cannabis use rates, and high-risk alcohol use remain our top issues.
Crossroads, UNCW’s alcohol and other drug education and prevention program, recently celebrated its 27th anniversary. It was founded on the premise that a comprehensive prevention message and reduction of harm were the best approaches to effect behavior change. As such, we teach our peer educators the importance of evidence-based programs.
So if opioids are not one of our biggest issues on campus, should we join in that conversation? Absolutely.
Data show that regardless of which city you live in, the United States as a whole is struggling with opioid use and misuse. There are an increasing number of overdoses and the availability of naloxone is becoming more common. Many university police departments and student health centers have naloxone available, and there are even discussions on campus about resident assistants having naloxone, which needs careful consideration and much discussion. There is increased dialogue about prescriber habits and laws limiting the amounts of opiates that can be prescribed, and medication drop boxes on campus are becoming more common.
This increasing concern about opioids has brought renewed conversation about the role of other drugs in our communities. The topic has brought new people into the conversation. As a result of the survey results there have been a number of town hall meetings and community events focused on the opioid epidemic. Politicians, faith leaders, the medical community, prevention practitioners, treatment centers, K-12 through college, law enforcement, parents and grandparents, all talking and working together. Local towns and counties are working together in new ways.
While we would not have chosen opioids as the main topic to discuss over the past few years, it has been the catalyst for several new community initiatives and has brought other people to the table. Every meeting that our staff has attended, there have been conversations about other issues in the community including alcohol and cannabis use. It has provided for the exchange of information by subject matter experts and increased collaboration of resources.
Our field has had to be nimble, staying one step ahead as new trends are identified. What keeps us grounded is our focus on an evidence-based comprehensive message. The more people we can engage in the conversation, the better we can respond to all issues … including opioid use.

About the Authors

Pat Leonard has served as Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) for more than 20 years. Prior to this appointment, she served as the Associate Dean and Dean of Students at UNCW. Leading a division of approximately 170 staff and a $35 million budget, she has been an integral part of managing and planning the dramatic growth and success experienced by UNCW, including enrollment tripling to over 16,000 students, and overseeing 16 construction projects, including seven housing projects and nine student support buildings during her tenure. Prior to UNCW, she worked at UNC Charlotte and Miami University of Ohio.
Katrin A. Wesner, Ed.D., is responsible for management of UNCW’s Abrons Student Health Center, which includes medical services, pharmacy, health promotion, and Crossroads, the campus’s alcohol and other drug education and prevention department. She is responsible for policy development and implementation, budget management, public relations, and personnel. She has been with the Student Health Center since January 2007 and she is a member of the American College Health Association’s Board of Directors.

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