I will never forget that day during my senior year of high school. It was a foggy morning, as it often is in November in Mill Valley, California. I was in English class when my phone started to buzz; I ignored it. It buzzed again, with another text. It kept vibrating, this time with a call. It didn’t stop. Finally I snuck a peek at my phone. It was my friend Eliza, saying that they needed to talk to me, immediately. I left the classroom under the pretense of getting water. I found Eliza crying in the hall. Immediately I asked what was wrong. When they replied, “Thibault’s dead,” I was stunned. My mind went blank. When I was able to focus my thoughts again, they landed on the conversation I had with Thibault’s mom just a few days before. She had told me how excited she was to see her son when he returned from his first semester at college for Thanksgiving break. I hugged my friend, comforting them while everything sunk in. Thibault’s mom would never get to see her son again; he wouldn’t be coming home.
When that reality hit me, I was a mess of sadness, pain and disbelief. The rest of the day was a blur of tears, hugs and confusion. Thibault, who died of an opioid overdose, and was a year ahead of me, had been a huge presence in our high school’s theater program, and all of us who had experienced the joy of working with him knew what a huge loss this was. I was struggling to wrap my head around the fact that I would never get to see his smile again, see him dance to his favorite song, or experience one of his famous tangents on some philosophical wondering. Everyone had their own way of coping with the loss. But all of us dealt with it together, as a community. I am forever grateful that on that day, and in the months that followed, I felt great support from the community, and was able to be around people who were struggling to cope with the same loss. It helped me to know that I was not alone. We would be okay.
But I still struggle with the loss of this friend. Five years later, a song will come on, or a memory will appear, that makes me stop and take the moment out of my day to remember and miss him. Thibault is one of two people I know who has lost a life to drug overdose.
It is hard losing someone, especially so young. The loss of Thibault made me wonder if there was anything I could have done to have stopped this tragedy from happening. The truth is, the what if’s don’t help.
I talked to Jennifer Parker, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at Penn State, who oversaw a recent study that examined the secondhand effects that the opioid crisis has on college students who have friends or loved ones who misuse or overdose on opioids. The study, which surveyed 118 students, found that one in five said they knew someone who’s addicted to pain medications.
The study also revealed that while drug addiction affects many students, only about 40% of students know what to do if someone overdoses. “We thought that if someone had been exposed to an overdose, they would try to go self-educate, or find out what to do, and become more aware and informed. But it didn’t make a difference,” Parker says. “People who had been exposed were just as ill-informed. That was alarming.”
Parker suggested combating this lack of education with trainings on college campuses to help students and faculty know what to do in case of an overdose. She also suggests that campuses that already have resources should better publicize these services during student and faculty orientations, to ensure that everyone knows what to do if help is needed.
Making resources more available to students and faculty could help save lives. I know firsthand how hard it is to lose a friend at such a young age. That loss runs deep, and it’s especially painful to know that each year, as opioid use increases, many more students experience what I have, and lose beloved friends. The crisis doesn’t just affect those who are addicted, and their families–it affects their friends, too.