SOUTHERN COLORADO — As fentanyl deaths continue to skyrocket nationwide, teens and young adults are providing a glimpse into the devastating impact of distribution.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says fentanyl overdoses have become the leading cause of death among young people. It is up to 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.
"I got these six dots to resemble the six friends that I lost in 2022," said Arthur Gallegos, Mitchell High School Student.
At only 16-years-old, Gallegos has experienced more tragedy than most. He's lost six friends just this year, three to fentanyl overdoses.
"The reason I got the tattoo was to motivate myself to get through life without turning to drugs like some of them did. It is also a reminder that I can be one of these dots as well," said Gallegos.
Gallegos also lost a classmate at his high school after the student ingested a pill laced with fentanyl. She was found unresponsive in her classroom and later died at the hospital. The third fentanyl-related death in Colorado Springs School District 11.
"I was in class when I heard about it, I heard there was an incident going on in the GRTC building," said Gallegos. "I feel so strongly about the death of that student, and I give all of the condolences to her family."
Losing loved ones to the drug, Gallegos wanted to do something about it. He started asking questions about the availability of narcan and mental health resources in his school.
"I started hearing a lot of she was hurt, and wasn't doing good. The friend that she had done a couple of things with, they weren't doing good either. It is almost too easy to get that type of stuff, especially for a teenager," said Gallegos.
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The fentanyl crisis is not only affecting teens, but young adults like Sarah Staron and Giovanna Burno who share a bond of losing a loved one to fentanyl.
"There was a close friend of mine two years sober, he was an absolute light in our community. This is the person that would engage in last-minute water gun fights in supermarkets, drive backward in a drive-through, keep a straight face just to mess around with people," said Staron. She explains how he was sober for two years, then worked at gas stations due to his criminal record. One day, he injected heroin that he didn't know was laced with fentanyl and overdosed.
"I lost a friend who was very young. They were taking pills and one of them was laced with fentanyl and that was it. It was a one day they were there, and the next they weren't. As a child, I had already lost friends who died because of either the decisions that drugs lead them to, alcoholism or overdoses. This one was different but the others you saw coming," said Burno.
Staron says there are misconceptions surrounding addiction. She says an individual can decide whether to pick up that drug or drink, but they don't have a choice to become addicted to it. She can relate to the struggles of addiction.
"There was a time in my life where I was genuinely terrified that if I wasn't self medicating or numbing myself out with alcohol, drugs, percocet and other pills I wasn't going to be able to survive," said Staron. "I was recovering from an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, and I had recently gotten sexually assaulted. I really was just trying to numb my life."
For both women, the death of their loved ones was life-shattering, but it also changed their perspective.
"Before this, I was like I don't have a hand in addiction. I've never been in and out of it so why would I speak on something that I don't know. That was kind of my mentality," said Burno. "After they died, I realized it was a problem that can hit pretty much anybody because if you know somebody or someone decides that they finally want to have a wild phase. They'll go to a party but they know this person so it should be fine. There is a really good chance they'll die at the end of it because fentanyl is in everything that you look at now."
"When he passed away, it really brought home for me, that no one is safe from this. Fentanyl is this whole other thing, this whole other demon that seems to sneak into an already tough situation and already impossible situation of trying to recovery something as addictive as heroin," said Staron.
RELATED: According to El Paso County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly's 2020 report, 86% of all accidental opioid-related deaths involved heroin or fentanyl.
"Fentanyl is a drug like none that we've seen before. It is causing so many deaths, just a small amount of fentanyl can kill many people. Usually, people who are experimenting with pills or substances of some kind. They are not even aware that fentantly has been put in as part of the drug. They are unintentionally taking fentanyl, and it is leading to overdose deaths that we've never seen," Katie Blickenderfer, Licensed Clinical Social Worker at Diversus Health.
According to Blickenderfer, the fentanyl crisis is having a particular impact on the younger generation.
"Some of the pills that they're making out of fentanyl, they're making to look like candy. It is appealing to young kids, they're getting it from friends who may be getting it from somewhere else. Those friends may not even know they're giving their friend fentanyl," said Blickenderfer.
She says it is important that parents talk with their children about the dangers of drugs at an early age.
"We don't want to assume that by sheltering our kids, we're preventing them from experimenting with substances. It is really important for us to be able to have open and honest conversations with our kiddos on the risks of experimenting with drugs. Also, how to deal with peer pressure. If they feel pressured into using substances, how do they say no, how they feel about coming to their parents if they have questions or concerns. To deal with problems that they may be experiencing with anxiety and depression and the state of the world right now," said Blickenderfer.
The fentanyl crisis changing the way these young people go through their daily lives.
"We are not in the same space we were ten years ago, we are not in a space where people are able to make an experimental choice and feel like they are probably going to be okay if they use just common sense and judgment. That won't protect you anymore because you don't know what is in what you're taking," said Staron. "I wouldn't take an ibuprofen, I think that is a great example, I wouldn't take that from anyone I didn't know."
"I don't take pills unless they come in a sealed bottle. If someone new goes around my medicine cabinet, I'll tend to take the label off whatever they were holding and not take anything out of it anymore," said Burno.
Both women who are also members of Young Invincibles which is an advocacy network say more needs to be done to prevent further tragedies.
"I think we need to move toward harm reduction, especially as a state. Test sites, and testing strips so you can see if there is fentanyl present in the drugs. We need Narcan available in public spaces, bars, clubs, and schools. We need to continue having conversations that are open and honest like this because drugs are not going to stop happening. We can not pretend like they are someone else's problem or someone else's kids' problem. They are all of our problems," said Staron.
"I think if you are distributing fentanyl, I would criminalize the distribution heavily. You are just going out and causing murder at this point. If you are buying the drugs or suspect your stuff is laced, I think it would better to have a testing site then to criminalize people who are addicted to the substance," said Burno
Gallegos wants more education and mental health awareness.
"Educate your kids the best you can. There is a difference between drugs and candy, and when you eat both too much or too long, you can start facing some consequences," said Gallegos.
Diversus Health recommends people reach out to their behavioral health providers who specialize in mental health and substance abuse issues. The organization also suggests the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Springs Recovery Connection.