If you were a college kid and you could administer a drug that would save a fellow student from an opioid overdose, would you? At Colorado State University, there was recently an effort to get resident assistants, the students who oversee younger dorm occupants, to carry naloxone, which reverses opioid overdoses.
The idea proved controversial and now there's a search underway for a different answer. But the numbers driving the questions are eye-opening. While there haven't been any overdoses on the CSU campus, the idea has some resonance: In Colorado, 67 people under the age of 24 died of opioid overdoses in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available.
How do college-age kids deal with this growing epidemic? What role should a university campus play in finding solutions? Two students helped us sort through all this. Isabel Brown, the speaker of the student senate, introduced the original resolution calling for RAs to be supplied with naloxone. Kyra Ferguson, who heads the Residence Hall Association, which represents students in the dorms, opposes the idea.
Brown said her interest was sparked by family members who’ve struggled with opioids. The university currently trains RAs to call CSU police if they suspect an overdose. The idea behind the resolution was to “cut out the middleman and empower the individual RA to respond to that situation immediately,” she said. The proposal was drafted by a national nonprofit, Students for Opioid Solutions, which has chapters in 33 states.
But Ferguson argued that RAs aren’t even trained to deal directly with more-common alcohol overdoses, “so there was a concern .. they may not be prepared with the past experience to handle dealing with an opioid overdose.”
At least a couple of alternatives are now under consideration. Both women said they’d support training all dorm residents to recognize the signs of opioid use and abuse. Brown noted that within a few weeks CSU’s health center will make narcan available to any student who asks for it, and the student government might provide money to subsidize those purchases.
Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. The power to reverse an opioid overdose isn't just for doctors and nurses. The drug naloxone, which can save lives, is fairly easy to administer, so we're seeing it in more and more places. The Denver Public Library carries it. Just the other day a guest on our show painted this scene from Vancouver.
Man: We noticed a group of teenage girls crossing the street, just the most ordinary looking high school kids you could imagine, and two of them had naloxone kits dangling from their backpacks.
RW: At Colorado State University students are grappling with this. There was a proposal to supply resident assistants in the dorms with Narcan in case a student they supervised overdosed, but the idea has proven controversial and now there's a search underway for a different answer. From Fort Collins, I'm joined by Isabel Brown, speaker of the Student Senate. She led this RA proposal. And Kyra Ferguson heads a group of students in the dorms. She opposed the plan. Hello to you both.
Isabel Brown: Good morning.
Kyra Ferguson: Good morning Ryan.
RW: Isabel, what prompted you to introduce this resolution? Has this issue touched you personally?
IB: It has. This has been an issue that I have faced in my own life with family members and a number of friends who've been affected by drug addiction, particularly with prescription drugs and opioids. And it's sort of was by happenstance that I was approached by a nonprofit called Students for Opioid Solutions about if there were any preventative measures happening from a student led initiative here at Colorado State University. At
the time there weren't, and I was so excited to be partnering with this organization to try and lead that movement on our campus.
RW: Indeed. This group, Students for Opioid Solutions, has chapters in 33 states, so what is happening on the CSU campus is a debate perhaps being replicated on campuses nationwide. I want to say there have been no opioid overdoses on the CSU campus at least in the last five years, but statewide 67 young people, so folks 24 and under, died of an opioid overdose in 2016. What is it you would hope that RAs would be able to do
versus like what they're equipped to do now?
IB: Our hope initially was to be able to empower resident assistants to respond to this incident, were it to happen on an individual floor in our residence halls, immediately. Under the current status quo, what happens is a resident assistant is instructed to call the Colorado State University Police Department, who is fully equipped to handle and administer Narcan. But essentially what we were hoping to do is sort of cut out that middleman and empower the individual RA to respond to that situation immediately.
RW: Just to be clear, an RA is a fellow student, but usually an upperclassman, right, who-
IB: Yes. That is correct.
RW: ... Has some authority in the dorm?
RW: Ultimately the idea would have required approval of the CSU administration. We spoke to the Director of Health Services on campus, Anne Hudgens. She said supplying RA with the naloxone is unnecessary. This is her view.
Anne Hudgens: The trained first responders can be there so fast that I don't think it makes sense to put the RAs in that kind of a position. I think by the time they called for emergency help that the police, who are trained first responders, could be there as quickly as the
RA could be there.
RW: Something you reflected yourself, Isabel. Those officers indeed carry Narcan, naloxone. Kyra, this passed overwhelmingly in the Student Senate, this proposal, but got nixed by the Residence Hall Association, which you're in charge of. What were your concerns about equipping RAs with this drug?
KF: The Residence Hall Association was primarily concerned that RAs that they spoke to can't currently address problems in regards to alcohol poisoning, among other issues, and so there was a concern that even though they can't deal with those issues, they may not be prepared with their past experience to handle dealing with an opioid overdose.
RW: Why do you compare it to, say alcohol poisoning? That's something that happens in the dorms I gather?
KF: Yeah, I mean it is that stereotypical idea that students in college will drink and that does fuel a lot of, particularly freshmen, to seek out that option. So it is something that the RAs are trained to prepare for, to deal with, and to call CSUPD in the event that they come across it.
RW: Okay. They're trained to call the police, they're not trained to deal with the effects of alcohol poisoning themselves. So you're saying that it would've been a bit uneven, they might have been trained to deal with one emergency but not necessarily another. Is that what I hear you saying?
KF: Yeah, especially in the case that they all more likely see an alcohol poisoning and not a opioid overdose, they would be more trained to see the overdose and they'd less likely to be seeing it.
RW: There might have been training associated with this, Isabel, was that the idea that you had in mind?
IB: Yeah, indeed. When we first presented the legislation to the Residence Hall Association we received overwhelming positive feedback about training resident assistants and really just the employees of Residence Life in general about what the signs and symptoms, excuse me, of an opioid overdose look like. You read tons of horror stories throughout the entire country of individuals who maybe mistake an opioid overdose for another health issue and unfortunately that leads to a lot of unnecessary deaths of young individuals across our country. Ultimately what we hope to continue working with the Residence Hall Association to implement is a training program in recognizing those signs.
RW: That's right, so you're working on a compromise because the RA idea specifically ran into some trouble. What is the path forward, what kind of training would you like to see RAs get Isabel?
IB: Absolutely. I just want to say that ASCSU is so looking forward to working with the Residence Hall Association in any capacity in coming up with the proper first step to prevent opioid overdoses on our campus. We're willing to have any sort of discussion in terms of what Residence Life or any individual on this campus might be comfortable with. Right now-
RW: This is the student association I'll say.
IB: Yes, and we are looking into a number of options in terms of what that training might look like. We met with the health network yesterday here with student government and they informed us of a very interesting training module that's run through the same producers of a program called Alcohol EDU which all individuals who live in the residence halls are asked to take and undergo when they move into the residence halls. But there's a brand new module that was just introduced related to prescription drug use and abuse, so maybe that's the right step forward, but we'll continue to have those conversations with the health network and Residence Life, and the CSU administration.
RW: Kyra, what do you think of more training and are there other options on the table?
KF: I'm definitely in support of more training, it can never be a bad thing to be prepared for those situations. The training that's provided to the residents that come into the halls in their first year, with the alcohol training, seeing that expanded is definitely going to be an amazing addition to their experience. Yeah.
RW: Is it possible that students who want to carry Narcan and naloxone could pick it up from student health or something like that and be the ones to administer it if they so choose? Is that something that you're considering on campus at CSU, Isabel?
IB: Indeed. We actually spoke with the pharmacy over at the CSU Health Center yesterday afternoon, and they are currently in the works of finalizing a written standing order for Narcan over the counter over at the pharmacy. So if any student wishes to go pick up a dose for themself, that would be an option within the next few weeks. From student government side of things, we are actually hoping to look into subsidizing the cost of at least a few of those units to make it more financially accessible to students.
RW: And with the idea that those students might be in various places throughout campus, maybe not just in the residence halls?
IB: Yes, absolutely.
RW: All right. Well thanks for walking us through this as you debate how to deal with the opioid crisis on the CSU campus. We appreciate your time.
IB: Thank you so much for having us.
KF: Thank you.
RW: So you heard there from Isabel Brown. She's a junior and speaker of the student senate at Colorado State University. Kyra Ferguson is also a junior at CSU and heads the Residence Hall Association. We talked about how best to administer naloxone on campus, that's the drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.