The start of summer break is one of the best times of the year to be a teen in America, marking the end of the school year and kicking off the season of college acceptance parties, graduation celebrations, and summer vacations. During this time of joy and warmth, beach-going and sun-soaking, it is important to interject a note of caution. Families need to know that young people may be exposed to illicit fentanyl in street pills or common drugs they might come across online or at a party. Now is the time to have the potentially life-saving conversation with your children about the dangers of the new chemical drug landscape.
We learned this the hard way. In May of 2020, we lost our son Charlie to this crisis when he was poisoned by a fake Percocet, which he bought from a dealer he met on social media. He was relaxing in his room, playing video games when he took what he thought was a prescription medication. The doctors tell us he probably died within 15 minutes. Charlie was 22 years old and three weeks shy of his college graduation.
Since Charlie’s death, we have made it our mission to inform young people and their families about the dangers of fentanyl and, increasingly, other chemicals in the drug supply. We formed a nonprofit in his honor called Song for Charlie and consulted with experts in various relevant fields to craft our messages in ways that resonate with young people.
We share the lessons we have learned here in the hope that we might prevent our tragedy from happening to your family.
What is fentanyl?
Here is what you need to know: Fentanyl is a potent opioid pain medicine that is safely used in medical settings every day in America. The problem stems from the fact that it is cheap and relatively easy to produce. That’s why drug traffickers use it to make counterfeit versions of the prescription pills our kids are familiar with, like Percocet, Oxycodone, and Xanax. This illicit fentanyl also shows up in cocaine and molly, most likely via cross-contamination. As a result, young people are consuming fentanyl unknowingly, particularly from the fake prescription pills nicknamed “fentapills.”
The bottom line for your kids is that they must assume that any pill they come across at a party or online is fake and very likely contains an unknown amount of illicit fentanyl.
There is no way to test for fentanyl in tablets reliably, so they can’t believe anyone who claims their pills are tested. If it didn’t come from a doctor, don’t put it in your mouth.
Why is this happening?
Remember that black market drug traffickers are profit-driven business people. When the US government cracked down on pill mills in response to phase one of the opioid crisis, it was harder to get real prescription pills from pharmaceutical companies to the street. This created an unmet demand, and criminal drug makers turned to counterfeiting to meet it. And since potency equals profits, they quickly settled on fentanyl (50 times more potent than heroin) as their raw material of choice.
At the same time, our kids were coming of age, raised in a pill-popping culture with internet and social media access. These forces converged with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and the rate of drug deaths among individuals between the ages of 13-24 nearly doubled. In 2021, the rate grew by another 20% to 7,500, with 80% of those deaths attributed to fentanyl, according to data gathered by UCLA.
Even though young Americans make up the fastest-growing demographic to fall victim to fentanyl deaths, more than half of the Gen Z population is dangerously unaware of the problem.
In research conducted by Song for Charlie, we found that only 31% of teens know about fentanyl in fake pills, though it’s involved in 75% of teen drug deaths. That’s 17 times the number of teen deaths involving heroin, a drug that survey respondents recognized as dangerous.
Our research identified the knowledge gap among our kids and their friends—they are unaware of the risks of fentanyl in fake pills and other drugs, and, of course, you can’t avoid a risk you don’t know about.
The good news is that the youth we surveyed indicated that they would change their behavior based on new information: 69% of respondents stated they are less likely to take a pill off-script after being told about fentanyl. Knowledge is power, indeed.
How to talk to your kids about fentanyl
It’s not easy to talk to your kids about drugs, especially the frightening idea that pills that look like real medicines are indeed potentially deadly fakes. But the cost of avoiding this difficult subject is too high to pay. So, here is some advice adolescent health experts have given us:
1. Be gentle, ask questions, and listen
Our kids have been through a lot in the past few years, so acknowledge that this might seem scary. You are learning about this new risk together as a family. Start by asking them what they have heard about this new problem. What are they hearing about fentapills? What are their friends saying about it?
Share your concern for your child’s well-being and that of their friends. Since kids are dying from a lack of information, invite your child to learn about the issue and feel comfortable sharing their knowledge with you. Make it a family project.
2. Share some basic facts
Acknowledge that their stress is real, but fentapills are not. You can’t solve real problems with fake pills. Give them the rundown on why fentanyl is unpredictable and often deadly. You’re not looking to scare them into compliance; ou are giving them the practical information they need to make informed choices.
Emphasize that there are no real prescription pills on any social media platform, and there is no such thing as a pill that has been “tested” for fentanyl. The only safe pills are from their doctor. Share all of this from a nonjudgemental place of love and concern. Empower them to be part of the solution by telling their friends.
3. Leave the door open
Keep the conversation going. They will have questions now and later. Ensure they know they can always come to you with any of them. This is a new phenomenon. You will learn to navigate this new landscape together.
Create the space for them to share their fears, doubts and concerns. Broaden the conversation to include alternatives to self-medication and the importance of managing stress in healthy ways.
A note on talking to kids about fentanyl
Mary and I are convinced that your children will appreciate this conversation since you are sharing relevant and useful information to them in a straightforward way. We also believe that closing the knowledge gap will save lives. That’s why we avoid “just say no” in favor of “just say know.” We founded Song for Charlie to make it easy for you and your family to learn about fentapills and have the kitchen table conversation. Please use our resources and spread the word.