What do Sigmund Freud, Prince, Janis Joplin and Pennsylvania-bred rapper Mac Miller all have in common? They all died from an opioid overdose.
Images of these famous faces, and many more, line a showcase in the halls of Morrisville High School in Bucks County, Pa. The display case has been in place for about a year in order to remind students about the dangers of opioid abuse and the potential consequences.
The display is one aspect of a program established by the school's MOPI (Morrisville Opioid Prevention Initiative) Committee, which was established by Dave Vaccaro at the end of the 2017-18 school year.
Vaccaro, a physical education and health teacher at the high school, says the idea to form the committee sprang from a short lesson on opioid abuse that he taught last school year. He was concerned students would not retain the information from the lesson, so he put out a call for students to help him form MOPI.
“I wanted to make sure the students would continue to hear about this problem and that it would stay in front of them,” Vaccaro says.
Across the United States, there are approximately 130 deaths per day related to opioid overdoses, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2018, there were 817 reported opioid-related overdoses in Bucks County, according to the Bucks County district attorney office's website. While the vast majority of persons who overdosed on opioids were in their 20s and 30s, about 20 cases involved teenagers. Vaccaro hopes the information MOPI shares across schools in Morrisville will help prevent future overdoses.
It was for that reason Vaccaro and his small team of students created the display case showing celebrities who died from opioid overdoses. Many of the students didn’t react to some of the famous faces because, being young, they weren't familiar with the people; but the death of Mac Miller was something of which they took note. A native of Pittsburgh, Miller died in September 2018 due to a mixture of alcohol, cocaine and the powerful opioid fentanyl.
In addition to the photos, MOPI also broadcasts its awareness messages during the morning announcements and has hung posters throughout the school. Additionally, the group has distributed fliers that include information about opioid abuse. Vaccaro hopes the students share the information with their families.
“We want to get this topic in front of the students and their families,” Vaccaro says of the opioid crisis. “It’s not going to go away, and that’s why we want everyone to be aware.”
Information shared by MOPI has thus far targeted only students in the middle and high schools; however, next year Vaccaro plans to roll the program down to the elementary level. He will prepare short lessons about the dangers of opioid abuse in simple language that is easy to understand.
Vaccaro says he tries to help students understand that abuse of opioids frequently begins with the afflicted individual being prescribed the drugs to cope with pain.
“It can happen so innocently,” he says. “We try to get them to understand that sometimes you can be given this medicine to help you recover from an injury, and there’s something in your body chemistry that decides it wants more and more and more.”
While active for the better part of a year, MOPI is still in its infancy. There are numerous things Vaccaro hopes the committee can accomplish with its goals of learning about and helping to prevent opioid abuse. He wants to get local businesses and organizations involved in the awareness effort.
Vaccaro has also been in discussions with an area rehabilitation center about a possible visit, so students can talk with people who are in recovery. He believes it will do the students some good to receive the information first-hand, and can also be beneficial for the patients in recovery.