HELP: Opioid Education Program


A man and a woman were found in a car. Eyes closed. Bodies slumped. Heads limp against their seat rests. Mouths wide open. The woman’s skin has a bluish hue. And in the backseat, there’s a little boy in a dinosaur shirt, fully awake, only four years old.

Photos of this family, published on the Facebook page for the city of East Liverpool, Ohio, shocked the world. Yet, they reveal a common occurrence in the story of America’s opioid crisis. In an interview for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” East Liverpool’s police chief, John Lane, explained the decision to post the controversial images: “We need help. We’re strapped with resources as far as trying to handle this kind of thing, and I don’t think the public is aware of the problem as far as how this affects not only the person that’s addicted but how it affects the family and everyone around them.”

Overdose is now the leading cause of death for people within the prime of their lives. With an understaffed police department and inadequate resources, Chief Lane looks toward education. “Resources are needed to go into the schools and teach from kindergarten up,” he said. “They should be pounding into these kids’ heads what can happen, how you can become addicted, what happens once you become addicted and how you can become one of these addicts that you see on TV or in the arrests and what you can do to keep yourself from getting there.”

Chief Lane’s NPR interview resonated with many listeners, among whom was Jeremy Holm. Holm is a House of Cards series actor living in Vergennes, Vermont. He witnessed the perils of opioids firsthand when his friend, fellow actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, died from a heroin overdose in 2014. Listening to Chief Lane’s appeal for opioid education made Holm think of his own daughters. He decided he was going to educate his kids about the dangers of drug use, and it would not stop there.

In October 2016, Holm met with Addison County’s Regional Prevention Partnership Coordinator Jesse Brooks to discuss the initial plans for what would become known as the HELP program.

HELP, which stands for Heroin Epidemic Learning Program, is an 8 to 10-week voluntary program that exposes high school students to the dangers of opioids. The first four weeks of the program are hosted by various volunteer experts including representatives from AEMT, law enforcement and addiction recovery. During the second half of the program, students are placed in groups and use what they learn to film an original, 30-second public service announcement (PSA). The PSAs are submitted to the HELP committee, where they are individually viewed and judged. The best PSA gets professionally edited to air on local and national television, and the students win a prize.

Today, few opioid- and heroin-specific programs exist in high schools across the country. As a result, HELP is a one of a kind program, and Vermont schools are readily embracing it. “When we started talking about this program, we thought of a three-to-five-year plan,” Jesse Brooks said of the initial expectations for HELP’s adoption into schools. “Really we were in schools about a month and a half after our discussion.”

HELP is currently implemented as either an elective course or part of pre-existing curriculum at Vergennes Union High School, Mt. Abraham Union High School, Randolph Union High school and Hannaford Career Center. The program continues to

expand. “Once the Vermont state police got involved they started sharing social media updates of the program, and more people became aware the program existed,” said Jesse Brooks.

Not only is HELP unique in targeting the opioid epidemic, but the program is also different from other drug programs in its lack of censorship. The program is raw. Holm and Brooks started an education plan that involves people as well as data. Hosts of the program share personal experiences, giving students the ability to interact with their narratives. “We open it up and we say that as long as you are respectful you can have any conversation you want to have with these folks,” said Brooks. “We are not censored, there are no limits.”

HELP shows students the opioid epidemic through an unvarnished lens. Brooks remarked that the content can be difficult because some students are living it.

“To those students we are saying, you are not alone. For the kids who have not been immersed in that world, we are bringing it to them and making it real,” said Brooks. “Nobody is off limits here. There is no demographic. Not if you are poor or you are rich, if you are black or you are white. They become comfortable with a very, very difficult topic.”

On Tuesday, March 6, at Hannaford Career Center, eight juniors and two seniors, who are currently taking a Medical Professions Course that has adopted the HELP program into its curriculum, worked on pitching their PSA ideas to Brooks.

When asked about the most important thing the students learned from the HELP program, Walker, a junior, responded: “You learn that there are a lot more resources than you think. Jesse gave me a card to go to United Way to pick up a bottle of Narcan because I am training to be a first responder. One of the presenters is a counselor to whom I can refer other people.”

Brooks and Holm created a system that educates, empowers and allows students to exercise their creativity. The two established a platform for conversation, as well as a foundation for furthering ties between people who struggle. Students are affected and informed. And this program goes beyond the opioid crisis.

“There is going to be a pendulum swing. Eventually, it is not going to be the opioid epidemic,” said Brooks about the future of the HELP program. “There is always a pendulum swing. With this program, you can take the basic framework of it and shift it to something else.”

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HELP: Opioid Education Program