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Coming in Fall 2018: New Core Lesson on Prescription Painkillers and Heroin

Recent headlines seem to be dominated by news about the opioid epidemic in the United States.  As rates of opiate use by middle schools are still quite low, it can be a bit challenging to present material about these drugs in an applicable and understandable way. However, most 7th and 8th graders are acutely aware of the popularity of prescription drugs and the dangers associated with them – perhaps they heard about a celebrity’s descent into addiction or a family member using too much oxycodone. But what they may not be mindful of is how use of legitimate pain medication prescribed by a doctor can turn into heroin use and addiction. After much careful deliberation among our staff, we feel the best approach is to make the topic relatable to what's happening in the current culture, and explain the logical connection "from legitimate to illicit use" to inform young teens early on about the reasons why people use opiates and about their health benefits and risks, with the intention to help them make good, healthy choices.


For the last year-and-a-half, we've been developing a new core lesson on heroin and other opioids that will soon be added to the Project ALERT curriculum. Though nearly complete, we're delaying its release in order to pilot-test the content. As we have stressed in the past, Project ALERT is an evidence-based program and any additional content we add goes through a rigorous evaluation process. Thus, we recently finished our initial round of pilot-testing in several classrooms in Ventura, California, and received some great, instructive feedback from both students and teachers. Generally, the response was very positive, but students did have a few suggestions for enhancement. For starters, it appears that middle-schoolers feel more comfortable "hamming it up" in front of their peers than do older kids; in other words, they want to do more roleplays during the lesson. Students really enjoyed meeting and working with other students, and they liked the information about the brain and how substances can affect it.  We're just about finished fulfilling their requests, and the new addition to the core lesson line-up should be ready for prime time by this fall.  With U.S. lawmakers recently authorizing approximately $6 billion in funds to address the opioid epidemic over the next two years,[1] and with states like Maryland and Ohio now mandating the inclusion of opioid-focused content in state-funded substance prevention education programming,[2] we feel strongly that this material will become an invaluable component of the Project ALERT curriculum.  Broadening the subject matter of Project ALERT couldn't come at a better time.


With class time being an issue for so many educators and community providers, this new lesson will be promoted as an alternate to core lesson 8 (Inhalants). But ideally, it would be added as an additional lesson in year 1, with the goal of maintaining maximum program fidelity within the original construct of Project ALERT. An important note is that we still need to test the revised curriculum for effectiveness, such as through learning whether inclusion of this new lesson has any effects on preventing heroin and other opioid abuse among students in middle school and beyond. We have plans to do this in the coming year.


We want to recognize our senior trainer and original contributor to the Project ALERT curriculum, Dr. Pamela Luna, who facilitated the recent pilot-testing sessions.  Thanks, Pam!


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