Verbum Ultimum: The Opiate of the Students

Dartmouth students should help fight New Hampshire’s opium crisis.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 3/31/17 12:45am

Four hundred and twenty-two New Hampshire residents died of drug overdoses in 2015, the second-highest rate, in percentage terms, of any state. Nearly 500 died from overdoses in 2016. Our state’s residents are dying painful deaths, and the primary driver of these deaths are opioids.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, one of the premier hospitals in northern New England, plays a significant role in treating these patients. The teaching hospital’s physicians and researchers are vital in fighting an increasingly deadly epidemic. Yet within Dartmouth’s campus, the drug problem in the Upper Valley community — and even on campus — is rarely discussed.

Many Dartmouth students want to change the world. We aspire to be lawyers, doctors, government officials, nonprofit leaders. Even those entering less altruistically motivated professions spend hours each term laboring over philanthropic events for campus organizations and Greek organizations. We’ve shown, through events such as the Prouty and the CHaD Hero, that we can pull together as a community to support important national and local causes and make lasting impacts in the lives of many people.

Yet, most Dartmouth students appear unconcerned about the opioid epidemic that rages so close to our campus. Towns like White River Junction, Norwich and Lebanon frequently experience heroin overdoses. Even in Hanover, our local high school has taken to keeping stocks of Narcan —an overdose reversal agent — on its grounds. Since the start of 2017, there have been numerous opioid-related arrests in these towns alone. DHMC, as one of the only well-resourced hospitals in New Hampshire and the state’s only Level I Trauma Center, plays a critical role in addressing New Hampshire’s opiate crisis.

The hundreds of substance abuse deaths in New Hampshire may seem relatively trivial when compared to the millions killed by heart disease, cancer and diabetes, among others, but these numbers are just a tiny fraction of the total volume of people impacted by opiate addiction. Most addicts, of course, do not die from overdoses. But addicts — dead or alive — are not the only victims. Many have children. Nearly all have families and friends. The networks of opiate addiction are far-reaching, and within the Upper Valley community, few outside the rarified walls of Dartmouth’s campus can say that they do not know someone who is suffering from addiction or its specter.

But the relatively small number of deaths — and the immediacy of this crisis — present an opportunity for us as conscious community members. Dartmouth students can step up alongside DHMC doctors and researchers to make real contributions in the fight against opiate addiction. Instead of investing time and money in organizations, many of which have noble causes but operate far away from the Upper Valley, to whom our contributions could be just a drop in the bucket, we can use our voices and philanthropic resources to help those suffering from opioid addiction in our immediate community.

We would not be alone in this fight. Treatment for drug addiction is one of the few issues with bipartisan support in New Hampshire. Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, refused to support President Donald Trump’s recent health care overhaul, largely because it could take away substance abuse treatment support currently in place under the Affordable Care Act. Colin Van Ostern Tu ’09, Sununu’s Democratic opponent in the 2016 gubernatorial election, campaigned to increase funding to combat New Hampshire’s substance abuse as well. Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, puts “combating the heroin and opioid crisis” first on her list of legislative priorities, while her predecessor, Republican Kelly Ayotte, also pushed for treatment and recovery.

But inside the Dartmouth bubble, there is little mention of this epidemic among our neighbors — and just as little discussion of drug use on campus. A ranking of colleges with the most drug and alcohol arrests from 2009-2011 showed that though Dartmouth has few arrests in comparison to most colleges, within the Ivy League, the College was comfortably in first place with 1.30 drug arrests and 12.53 alcohol arrests per 1,000 students on average. Yale University came second in both categories, with 1.09 drug and 2.27 alcohol arrests per 1,000 students.

Our lack of action stands in stark contrast to many Dartmouth students’ supposed goals — as liberal arts scholars and well-intentioned people — to act as beneficial agents to the world after graduation and for the rest of our lives. As students at an elite institution, we are uniquely able to help our neighboring communities and leverage our talents — whether through research, fundraising or aiding open discussion — to support treatment.

It is important to raise money for large charities and organizations such as the Girl Scouts. Yet diseases such as cancer, which the Prouty fundraises for, are better funded and have the benefit of endless media attention and the support of many hospitals across the world working toward treatments. Opioid addiction and substance abuse, on the other hand, are issues extremely close to home, and one on which media and medical attention has only recently focused. With DHMC nearby and a wealth of additional resources, including access to Dartmouth’s potential donor pool and qualified researchers, Dartmouth students could help make an impact in our immediate neighborhood by focusing philanthropic efforts on countering New Hampshire’s opioid and substance abuse epidemic.

If we aren’t willing to support treatment for drug addiction outside our campus, we should at least support it among our peers. If nothing else, there are two simple ways we can start to combat the problem. One, we can foster an environment where candid discussion of substance abuse in a non-judgmental setting is possible and where getting treatment is destigmatized. We can also use our influence in college organizations to raise funds for and support local hospitals, including DHMC.

As residents of the Upper Valley, albeit temporary ones, we have a responsibility to help fight the opioid epidemic, currently the most pressing issue in our state. Our neighbors are dying — and we can help.

The editorial board consists of the opinion staff, the opinion editor, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.