Matt Bunn said he’s always awaiting one of two calls: that his 28-year-old son has either been arrested or has died.
Bunn, the manager of the Newberg Emergency Shelter, said his son became addicted to fentanyl and meth four years ago. Since then, he’s lost custody of his daughter, been in and out of the legal system, developed health issues and started living on the streets. Bunn hasn’t seen his son in-person for three years.
“We’re still hoping (for his recovery),” he said. “He started out drinking and it just escalated very quickly. Fentanyl is in everything right now.”
Bunn, a former alcoholic and addict himself who’s been clean for 13 years, shared his and his son’s experiences with addiction during the Newberg School District’s Safety Symposium on Fentanyl Thursday evening. The symposium, which lasted 90 minutes and was preceded by a Q&A at the school’s Wellness Center, featured several panelists seeking to educate parents about the harsh realities of the drug that is 50 times stronger than heroin.
“My son … he graduated high school, he was a football player, he had a good family life,” Bunn said. “His mom and stepdad were home all his life. It happens to anyone and everybody. I happen to come from a single family, so I’m high risk, but it’s just everybody’s high risk now.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid designed to help with pain but is incredibly addictive. With a street value of only $5 per pill, the drug is cheap, easily accessible and, as Bunn previously said, found in many other drugs, including black market marijuana, which dealers sometimes use as a distribution source. Drug makers also don’t check to ensure equal distribution of the fentanyl, so even a single pill could lead to an overdose.
“It’s an epidemic,” Bunn said. “We’re losing people left and right. Probably every week we get a call that someone’s passed away from fentanyl use or in the hospital from overdosing.”
But why should parents be concerned?
According to panelist Bill Michielsen, manager of Yamhill County Public Health, it’s easy for children to access anywhere – online via social media outlets like Snapchat, at school or on the street – even if they aren’t looking for it.
Psychologist Dr. Jeri Turgesen from Providence Newberg Medical Center pointed out that adolescents are also especially vulnerable to drug addiction due to their brains naturally craving more dopamine. And the younger they are when they start abusing substances, the higher their risk of long-term abuse.
Additionally, as shown in national surveys, many adolescents don’t know what fentanyl is, let alone the consequences of using the drug, making them easier prey.
“That’s really startling,” Turgesen said. “We have all these adolescents who are exposed, have access and they don’t even know about the level of danger, and they have brains that are primed to be experimenting.”
And evidence suggests adolescents do experiment. According to national statistics, 70% of teens have tried alcohol, 50% have taken illicit drugs, roughly 40% have smoked cigarettes and over 20% have abused prescription drugs by their senior year.
“I know a lot of us adults, we tend to kind of normalize – ‘Oh, it’s normal for kids to experiment a little (but) … the initiation, experimentation and recreational use now is exponential …,” Turgesen said. “Substances in general are much stronger than they used to be … So, having an adolescent go to a party where maybe they pick up an MDM pill from someone, the risk of that … having fentanyl in it is significant.”
Not to mention, reversing a fentanyl overdose usually requires several doses of Naloxone, or Narcan as it’s more commonly known, due to its high potency.
“We need to be make sure we’re having very active conversations with youth around even the risks of experimentation knowing how prevalent fentanyl is already throughout our community,” Turgesen said.
She added that families and influential adults are the most important barriers between adolescents and drug abuse, with studies showing that children who regularly eat dinner and talk about issues with their parents tend to exhibit lower rates of drug use and abuse.
“Creating space for conversation is one of the most important things that we can do,” Turgesen said, encouraging parents to discuss drug and alcohol with their children and become familiar with aspects of their lives that might influence their opinions about substance use. “Create an open dialogue where you are sharing information but they’re also able to share their beliefs, share what they’re thinking, share what they’re learning.”
Parents should also be aware of changes in their children’s behavior, as well as strive to reduce risk and access to the medicine cabinet, unmonitored online activity and alcohol in the home.
“Have these tough conversations with your kids,” NDPD School Resource Officer Jeff Moreland said. “You won’t regret your kids being pissed off and mad at you for taking their phone away or invading their privacy. It’s not fun to do but it’s worth it in the long run.”