Guest Opinion: Not much heroin on campus, yet let’s not Ignore it

Though heroin use on campus is uncommon, we still need to work to de-stigmatize addiction.



Thomas Clemons offers instructions on how to use naloxone, also called Narcan, to reverse a heroin overdoses to addicts who visit a Baltimore City needle exchange van.

As future and current physician assistants, we would like to talk about heroin use in college students. We would like to bring awareness to the fact that any college student may be exposed to heroin, and therefore provide resources and encourage nonjudgment.

Often, we associate heroin use with marginalized populations, yet that should not preclude awareness of the potential for heroin use by college students. Anyone can use heroin, and college students are no exception. Root causes of risk factors for heroin use are multifactorial and can include increased stress, past  trauma, prior exposure by family or friends, and self-medication habits. We would like to acknowledge that each person’s use is related to her or his personal story.

A previous UI student said that “people around me used heroin, but I did not know that for sure until after college.” This person emphasized the importance of building relationships on campus to address people’s addiction issues instead of looking down upon them with negative judgment.

Another one of us knows other students who have talked about their exposure to heroin use back home, either in their high school or in their families.

Reported heroin use is the lowest of all drugs surveyed in the college-age population. According to our UI sources, the annual National College Health Assessment showed that in 2018, 0 percent of students reported using heroin in the last 30 days (in 2017, it was only 0.2 percent). Despite these current reports of low heroin use at the UI, recent news has highlighted an increase in heroin use among some college-student populations and efforts to address it.

Regardless of how much heroin is being used on campus, we would like to reduce the stigma around drug use and introduce the concept of harm reduction. As harm reductionists, we accept that legal and illegal drug use is a part of society, and we are working to minimize the negative consequences associated with it rather than stigmatize people who use drugs. We believe everybody’s health matters, regardless of drug use.

RELATED: UIHC receives $1.5 million to train providers to treat opioid addiction

Many of the multifactorial root causes discussed earlier, as well as social inequities, affect a person’s vulnerability to and capacity for dealing with drug-related harms. Through nonjudgmental and noncoercive engagement with people who use drugs, we strive to empower them to be the primary agents of reducing the harms of their own drug use.

We would like to ask everyone to have an open mind about the complexity of heroin use. And we encourage all health-care workers to embrace cultural humility when dealing with drug use in clients and patients. The medical system should not shame people who use and instead should use a harm-reduction approach and work with the whole person.

So how can you get more information and increase your awareness on heroin? Start a conversation with people you know. Also, check out one organization doing solid work, the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition  ( It has led the charge to bring people and organizations together to best address opioid issues at a state level, run a free naloxone-distribution program (naloxone is the opioid overdose-reversal drug), and provide overdose-prevention education. All of us are volunteers for the group, and if you would like to volunteer, please contact it at [email protected] or 319-214-0540.

Should you or someone you know struggle with heroin, treatment programs are available through Prelude Behavioral Service ( or the Chemical Dependency Service at UI Hospitals & Clinics ( An excellent resource specific for UI students is the UI Collegiate Recovery Program. Per its website, it is “inclusive of all Iowa students seeking to recover from addictive behaviors and values the personal dignity of each member” (

Reported heroin use at UI is low, but we want to encourage awareness and highlight that resources are available if needed. We want all students to feel safe and supported.

Facebook Comments