Addict-Turned-Educator Promotes National Health Education Standards

Rebeckah Reed Young

Rebeckah Reed Young at a #RedforEd Rally.

Eight years ago, Rebeckah Reed Young wasn’t thinking about what kind of educator she wanted to be. All she could think of was her next fix. She got hooked on opioids in high school, then turned to heroin — a cheaper, more available replacement. She’d moved in with her abusive dealer who sold pounds of heroin every week from their home. After the heartbreak of watching several of her friends overdose, she still continued to use — if only to avoid the feverish nightmare of heroin withdrawal.

When she found out she was pregnant, she stopped immediately and, under doctor supervision, completed methadone treatment and weaned her infant son through breastfeeding.

“I am now over five and a half years clean,” says Young, a certified substitute teacher for the Washington County Public Schools in Hagerstown, Maryland. As an educator she is determined to join the crusade to prevent drug abuse and keep students from falling into the pit of addiction.

Washington County sits in the mountains of western Maryland, a mostly rural area where once flourishing small industries have withered and more residents live in poverty than in the city of Baltimore to the east.

Nearly 200 opioid overdoses have been reported in Washington County this year. The use of Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin, is also on the rise. It’s a public health crisis that requires multiple responses, not least of which is prevention. Young believes that prevention should start as soon as possible in our schools.

“Drug awareness and prevention should be taught from an early age, including the various drugs available in the world and appropriate and inappropriate uses,” she says.

It’s not helpful to come at kids in high school with scare tactics about using illegal recreational drugs, she says.

“Students should be informed about why and how drugs can be dangerous and bad for our health as well as how some can be good for our health, and they should be taught how to differentiate between illegal and legal drugs and use and why they are titled as such.”

Young is an advocate of the CDC’s National Health Education Standards, which were developed to establish, promote and support health-enhancing behaviors for students in all grade levels—from pre-Kindergarten through grade 12.

By using the standards throughout a student’s educational career and by incorporating them into different parts of the curriculum rather than regulating health education to cursory sex education and drug abuse prevention classes in high school, students get a more comprehensive understanding of healthy living and how to maintain their wellbeing by making healthy choices.

Sometimes those lessons aren’t offered at home and kids are left to grope blindly through a maze of choices and peer pressure. Even if they do have families who talk to them about healthy lifestyles at home, the school is a powerful complement.

Young’s mom, a nurse, and her father, an iron worker, were hard working people who did everything to support their children, she says, but had her teachers spoken to her about how dangerous and addictive many drugs can be and had offered strategies throughout her education about how to make healthier decisions she would have been better prepared to avoid the pitfalls of her local drug culture.

“Unlike so many others, I escaped the drug life alive,” she says, but wonders if more health education would have stopped her from ever walking into that life.

“I didn’t know the extent of addiction; I had no idea what happens when you use drugs repeatedly,” she says. “Educators can help students better understand drugs and the power of healthy choices to help combat the current epidemic.”

Young not only escaped the drug life, she now has a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and elementary education and a certification in special education. A student member of NEA, Young is completing additional graduate courses and will apply for a full time classroom position in the 2020-2021 school year.

“I plan to balance academic and health standards throughout each,” she says. “I hope to guide and prepare my students and their families to the best of my ability so that they will continue to thrive in life and school long after they leave my classroom.”