Opinion: Fight against opioids can start with teens taking stand

The Bubonic Plague. The influenza pandemic. The HIV/AIDS epidemic. When I’ve learned in school about these diseases that affected millions of people, I’ve also learned about the incredible responses societies had: communities banded to educate their members about risks and provide resources and support in an effort to wipe out diseases that were killing people. Now we have another epidemic on our hands — the opioid epidemic.

The opioid epidemic is a crisis affecting millions of families across the country, and especially in my home state of Ohio. According to the Ohio Department of Health, there were 4,050 drug overdose deaths in 2016, a 33 percent increase from the prior year. With that number, Ohio claims the spot of states with the most opioid-related deaths.

I believe more can be and should be done to stop the deaths and help all the 20.5 million Americans who had a substance-use disorder in 2015. Of that 20 million, two million involved prescription pain relievers and 591,000 involved heroin.

I’d always known about the opioid epidemic, it was just a part of life. I can remember not being allowed to wear flip-flops in the alley during the summer because there were often discarded needles on the ground. There were certain streets I had to avoid because of the known drug activities that would take place there. Even when my friends lost loved ones to overdoses, it still didn’t seem real to me.

On the Fourth of July 2016, the opioid epidemic changed my life forever. My aunt was found dead from an overdose. She was only 40, a beautiful, funny, caring person who made everyone else around her feel loved. It finally hit me: If this could happen to my aunt, it could happen to anyone. Out of my sorrow grew determination and drive. I knew deep down I had the power to do something, to make a difference.

What I found most horrifying is that addiction can start in the most unsuspecting of places: the family medicine cabinet. Our whole lives we’re taught prescription drugs are meant to help us, to heal us, but the truth is they’re the most accessible drugs and potentially the most life-threatening. And in most homes, they just sit in an unlocked medicine cabinet.

Last year, I attended the 4-H Healthy Living Summit in Washington, a youth conference focused on providing hands-on learning and training for teens interested in addressing health-related issues. With my fellow 4-Hers, we decided to take action within our community. We could not just sit on the sidelines, we know that one addiction averted is one life saved. Together we developed an addiction education program that relies on teen leadership and decreases the stigma around addiction.

Our program is simple and grounded in reality. We put youths in Ohio in the same situation they’re in every day: staring at the medicine cabinet in their bathroom. We built a simulated bathroom, complete with a sink and vanity mirror. Inside the cabinet is what you would normally see in a typical family medicine cabinet: prescription pill bottles. The only difference is on the bottles are facts about addiction and opioids. The mirror brings young people face to face to realization that anyone — even themselves — can become addicted if prescription medications are mishandled.

We’ve traveled all around Ohio sharing our exhibit with youths at schools, fairs and more. Every conversation I had gave me hope we were helping to make a difference — person by person — but I knew it was not enough. That is why I’m working with 4-H to share the medicine cabinet project with young people all over this country in the hope they can take up the fight in their own communities.

Societies throughout history have risen to the challenge of ensuring deadly disease is thwarted. I am only trying to do the same. The only difference is the foe we’re facing. It’s not a viral infection or a bacterial disease, it’s a mental illness.

Young Americans across the country have the power to stand up and say: “Not my community.” I found support with my peers from my 4-H club, but the opportunity to make a difference can be found anywhere and with anyone. All it takes is the courage to take action.

Kylie Cline is a 17-year-old 4-H member from Columbiana County, Ohio. She has started a Health Heroes program in her community with support from 4-H and a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. She wrote this for InsideSources.com.