A student wakes in the middle of the night to use the rest room and finds her mother sitting at the kitchen table with a needle in her arm.

An entire family of students removed from their home due to substance use by parents.

Two students with parents who died of overdoses.

They’re stories all from just one school—all told by just one school employee. The impact of the opioid crisis in Maine is no longer slowly creeping into public schools, it’s prevalent in many areas with students struggling to separate home life from school life. And things are only getting worse. Maine saw 418 people die of overdoses in 2017, an 11 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Maine Attorney General’s Office. Most of those deaths were caused by opioids with the drug fentanyl overtaking heroin as the most deadly drug on the streets.

The drug epidemic in Maine has increasingly impacted students in Maine, and in turn their ability to learn. Maine Educator sat down with a school nurse in Central Maine to talk about how students’ home life, where parents are using drugs is affecting school life and what can be done to help those students in need. To protect the privacy of the students Maine Educator is not naming the nurse or the school, in the following Q&A.

Can you share some of the stories you’ve heard from students when it comes to parental drug use? What is really happening at home?

One student came to school distraught because she got up in the middle of the night to use the restroom and her mother was sitting at the kitchen table with a needle in her arm. In this same home, the mother took the high school student’s television (it had been a gift from another family member) and sold it for money to buy drugs. In this same home, a younger sibling’s game system (also a gift) was also sold for money to buy drugs. The mother sold the stuff and then defaulted on the rent and the kids had no place to go. Usually grandparents step in, and you hope the kids are together. Can you imagine parents stealing from you to advance their cause?

There are students who come to talk to me and say things like, “I’m really anxious because I’m afraid my mother is going to start using again, or my mother came back to the state and she says she’s clean but I don’t want to have to deal with it because I don’t know if I believe her.” Those are just the students who open up. It is striking, that often, the student knows about their parents’ drug habits, but have been “groomed” to say nothing.

In what ways have you seen parental drug use affect a student’s school life?

When you get high school kids, they get to the point they can sort of strategize themselves as painful as it may be—but imagine the second grader who has two parents who are high all the time—what do they do? Who are they going to call?

The substance use problem impacts the students in so many ways. Parental attention is diverted from their children because drug use is the main priority in the home. This often means these students have parents who do not complete paperwork for their sons and daughters (this even includes free and reduced lunch applications), they are negligent in addressing their children’s needs for medical and dental attention, having available food in the home is often not a priority and these students are hungry—older siblings worry about the needs of their younger siblings.

Drugs become the driving force to the detriment of the children—kids hang in the balance, suspended, hoping there is a safety net to catch them. Sometimes kids are reluctant to get counseling because they’re afraid they’re going to have to tell someone something that’s going to get them in trouble, or their parents in trouble. They just can’t focus on learning when they have so much happening at home.

Over the years, how have you seen the opioid crisis change in terms of how students talk about it and deal with it?

It used to be that kids would say “Oh, don’t call my house right now because my mother is at an appointment.” That appointment was they were going to get their suboxone. Kids now seem to be more willing to say “My parents use drugs.” It’s weird I don’t know if it’s become more normalized by virtue of the press; it’s a national epidemic. You read about it, see it everywhere. Before, if parents used drugs it was more hush-hush. It’s good if kids can say the words and get the help they need, and it’s good that kids feel they can freely talk to someone—they have to process it somehow.

We’ve done a lot of work at our school with adverse child experiences. A lot of these kids don’t just have drug issues. Their parents have abandoned them because they want to be with their drug-using partner-of-the-week. It’s tough. What a feeling as a child to feel like their parent believes ‘this high is more important than me.’

What can schools do?

People say ‘well, this [the opioid crisis] has nothing to do with school’—but family and home life has everything to do with school—students are carrying that back and forth with them. Schools need to be vigilant about watching for subtle signs of familial dysfunction and do what they can to support the children with care, attention and understanding.

Schools and their staff are often the one stabilizing influence for these children—this is problematic at different times of the school year, with vacations and summer time. The safety, care, shelter and food available at school will be absent during vacation. The hope is that, at school, these young victims of their parents’ drug dependencies are afforded with some of the essentials needed for them to be ready to learn. Unfortunately, based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need, our students need to have their fundamental needs met before they are ready to learn—they need food, shelter and clothing. Schools are doing their best to provide those needs.

It takes a team—it’s not a singular thing. You want to make sure these kids feel comfortable coming and just processing what their concerns and fears are. We, as a team, try to provide them counseling services, we have guidance and school social workers. The need for those services has increased exponentially. As a nurse, you have to address not only the physical well-being but the psycho-social.