Opioid epidemic opens discussion in Penn State classroom

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. - In the mists of the hustle and bustle of Penn State Harrisburg’s campus, a college student laid motionless in their car, overdosing on heroin. They would soon become the first student to be administered NARCAN on campus property.

The opioid epidemic affects tens of millions of people in the U.S., but very few get to see those effects first hand. While the case in early 2018 on Penn State Harrisburg’s campus was the first for the school, police officers like Richard Rocco soon could be seeing more overdoses and signs of the epidemic on their campus

 Officer Richard Rocco pushes a cart with a student and the Nittany Lion on it during an exhibit focusing on the dangers of driving under the influence at Penn State Harrisburg's Wellness Day on Tuesday, April 24, 2018.

Officer Richard Rocco pushes a cart with a student and the Nittany Lion on it during an exhibit focusing on the dangers of driving under the influence at Penn State Harrisburg's Wellness Day on Tuesday, April 24, 2018.

Prescription abuse can be traced back to students starting in high school, but is relatively undetectable, while heroin addiction has much more definite signs according to Rocco. Due to the low cost of the drug, numbers are on the rise and is coming to campuses; “It’s just not all the way here yet,” Rocco said.

While it is coming, there is one professor on the Middletown campus hoping to inform those who want to stop the epidemic from ever reaching Penn State Harrisburg. For three hours on Monday nights over 15 weeks in a classroom in the top floor of Penn State Harrisburg’s library during the Fall of 2017, Dr. Weston Kensinger’s goal was to give a new perspective to the opioid epidemic to four students going for their master's degree.

His class was a colloquium class, part of a masters program in health education, with a purpose to “give students a wide view of the current opiate epidemic by looking at it through a variety of lenses” according to the course syllabus. Kensinger wanted to give his students experiences, not assignments, especially at the graduate level, in a class based on one of the hottest topics today. “Every assignment should apply to something outside the classroom,” Kensinger said. “If you’re doing an assignment just hand in a paper: pointless. Make it apply to their life, work, whatever.” 

WATCH: Penn State Harrisburg hosted their third annual “Wellness Party” in an effort to promote a healthy lifestyle and inform students the dangers of addiction.

One of the significant experiences Kensinger wanted his students to endure was abstaining from one thing for thirty days. “The thought behind that was; you have to tell addicts that they have to give something up for the rest of their lives. Try to give up something that you’re not even addicted to for 30 days.

“I said ‘Look, some of you might be successful, some of you might not be, and that’s fine, but just journal it.’” Some students gave up wine while others stopped drinking coffee, but all found themselves in a spot realizing how hard it is to cut something out of their life. 

Kensinger referenced an instance where a student, who is also a teacher, struggled to deal with the social aspect of cutting coffee from their life. “Once they got past (the physical effect of quitting coffee,) they were like: At faculty meetings, there’s always coffee there, and everybody else is drinking coffee, and now I’m not drinking coffee. People were asking me ‘Why aren’t you drinking coffee?’” That experience helped the students understand what it is like to be a recovering addict. 

The topic touched home with all the students, especially Katie Scheib, a special education teacher in elementary school. Scheib is pursuing her masters in health education and had an interest in narcotics. The topic of opioid addiction hit home for her. “I have a relative that struggled with addiction,” Scheib said, “but never thought of any other way that it would impact me. When I started my current job, I realized how many of my students have parents in jail for drug-related charges.”

For Katie Forsyth, another student in the master's program for health education, the personal connection hit home once she started seeing the numbers around the opioid crisis. “For me, I think it started with the magnitude of the issue as told by the statistics,” Forsyth said. “I was shocked to hear that opioid-related deaths now outnumber car accident deaths.”

In response to the rising number of deaths, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf declared a statewide emergency in regards to heroin and opioid use in January of 2018, signing a statewide disaster declaration. Pennsylvania saw a 37 percent increase in drug-related deaths in 2016 from 2015 and is roughly 20 points above the national average with drug overdoses per 100-thousand people at 36.5 percent.

“The overall problem started a long, long time ago,” Rocco said, who spent 27 years as a member of the York County Drug Task Force before coming to work on the Middletown campus. The current epidemic started with Ritalin and quickly moved to painkillers, which Rocco said: “were overprescribed tenfold.” Once access became so readily available, gaining large amounts became no issue. “I knew a guy once that got 250 every month. And you can only take four a day, so do the math.”

“Since (Governor Wolf has) been in office, he's supported legislation and funding that goes to treating this,” Kensinger said. “And they're going to start to turn the corner a little bit, but they're just trying to save lives.”

While Wolf is progressive with his actions, Kensinger believes it falls on others to help stop this epidemic. “It not only affects everybody, but it’s everybody’s problem,” Kensinger commented. “And everybody is a part of the solution.” 

Kensinger mentioned that legislation, laws, and funding wouldn’t stop the epidemic on their own. “Those are all little tidbits of it, and they all work very hard, I’m not discrediting them in any means, but until we step back and look at what’s wrong with our society and that people are going to this, it’s not going to stop.”

Many people are trying to get help and stop their addiction to drugs and alcohol in this country. Alcohol Anonymous estimates they have over two million members worldwide in their program, a number that Narcotics Anonymous also estimates they have enrolled in their program, too. It’s a side of addiction that many don’t get to see, one that Kensinger wanted his students to experience. 

For one of the classes “experiences,” students were asked to attend an open Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meeting and prepare a short report on their experience, one that was moving for the entire class. “When we were discussing it after they all went to their AA, NA meetings, all four had tears in their eyes,” Kensinger said. “I prep them for it, here's what's going to be like, but they still didn't comprehend it, which you can't unless you actually go.”

Scheib felt the experience was the most impactful of the entire class. As a 26-year-old college student, Scheib said she “stood out like a sore thumb,” but still felt welcomed in the meeting. “Each person made it a point to talk to me and offer advice,” she said. “They knew they were recovering alcoholics, but they were doing it together.”

Kensinger made it a point to have the students not only reflect on the experience in a meeting, but also the moments leading up to entering the meeting. “I said 'How was it when you first pulled up?...How did you feel?' 
'I was nervous.' 
Why are you nervous? You're just going to a meeting.
'Well, what if I walk in and know somebody? I don't want somebody to think I have a problem. I'm scared what other people are going to think of me. Am I going to fit in? Who am I going to see?' 
And that's the same thing that an addict goes through the very first time. They sit in their car and don't want to go in, and eventually, they do.”

“They came from all different walks of life,” Scheib said. "Which made me realize addiction does not just touch the lives of the lower income families or young, wild teenagers. Some of the guest speakers also gave raw data and statistics that were just mind-blowing. One speaker was a recovering addict, and her story was so powerful and yet I don’t think she realized it. She was telling us her story, being very honest, but she spoke with such power and strength.”

The students heard not only stories from the meetings but also a large group of guest speakers that was a significant part of the course. The speakers included Steve Mrzowiski, Director of Patient Safety and EMT with Penn State Hershey, Eric Hagarty, Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Tom Wolf, and Gina Riordan, the mother of an addict in recovery.

These speakers along with others helped bring the issue into a different light for the students. “It became clear that this is affecting kids from good families, the elderly, and many others who don’t fit the ‘drug user’ stereotype,” Forsyth said. “It was very eye-opening and emotional in the sense that we were face to face with people who have been directly affected.”

Mrzowiski has had eye-opening experiences of his own during his time as an EMT, responding to overdose calls. Kensinger recalled a story Mrzowiski told about a woman who was an addict giving birth. The child was born, but the father retreated to a bathroom, “got high and overdosed in the bathroom.” 

“You’re going back, saving the same person over and over,” Kensinger recalls Mrzowiski saying. “People should be saved, but it wears on you from a human standpoint.”

One of the other guest speakers, Eric Hagarty, had a frank discussion with Kensinger regarding what the Governor's office can do about solving the problem, asking what the “magic bullet” was to solve the problem. “I said Eric; there is no magic bullet. There's magic buckshot,” Kensinger mentioned.  “It's going to take a lot of coordinated efforts going the same way, but you guys aren't going to solve.

“Until we start treating people the way that they need to be treated from any relationship - parents, faculty to student, siblings, friends - until we start building people up rather than ripping them down, it's not going to happen.”

Kensinger’s goal is to continue to spread messages about opioid addiction and have communities help fight against opioid abuse. “My analogy is, if you're on a boat and you're taking on water, right now we're bailing out the boat. Until you actually fix the holes in the boat, you're going to keep taking on water, and you're just going to have time for treating and staying afloat rather than repairing it.” Kensinger hopes there is a time people can come together and repair that boat “because if we don't, it's going to continue.”