In our society, teens seem invincible. But drugs are killing teens just as they are on the precipice of truly beginning their lives. The tragedy is that while illegal drug use is down, teen opioid overdose deaths are increasing.
For a while it seemed as if the nation had turned the corner on drug overdoses and deaths among this young age group. But after a few years, the number of deaths started to rise again and are still increasing.
So the question is, why is drug use dropping while opioid overdose deaths are rising? The lethal answer is one we’ve been hearing about for years.
Drug abuse among teens is dropping
In 2018, the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens (NIDA) released its Monitoring the Future survey. Based on data from 2015, the NIDA report found that teenagers’ use of illegal drugs such as opioids, tobacco and alcohol was at its lowest since 1975.
But, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), prescription drug misuse, which can include opioids, is among the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States. In 2016, 3.6 percent of adolescents ages 12-17 reported misusing opioids over the past year. The vast majority of this misuse is due to prescription opioids, not heroin.
However, there is one bright spot. According to HHS, high school seniors’ misuse of pain medication, excluding heroin, is dropping. At its peak in 2004, 9.5 percent of teens were abusing opioids. That number has dropped to between 3 percent and 4 percent in 2018.
Among specific drugs, misuse of Vicodin decreased from 10.5 percent in 2003 to 1.7 percent in 2018. As for Oxycontin, HHS reports that abuse has dropped from 5.5 percent in 2005 to 2.3 percent in 2018.
So, what is causing this drop? It appears teens are now finding it harder to get their hands on opioids. In 2010, 54 percent of high school seniors believed that getting opioids was easy. In 2018, 32.5 percent of high school seniors felt the same way.
Deadly overdoses among teens still rising
While that’s good news, the NIDA report also uncovered a grim trend: Teen opioid overdose deaths are on the rise.
In 2015, drug overdoses killed 772 teens. Most of those deaths were the result of two drugs, opioid heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. These two drugs are particularly lethal because they can stop a person’s breathing.
NIDA updated the report and found that in 2016, fatal prescription drug overdoses among teens rose to 873, and jumped to 1,050 in 2017. But the number of teen overdose deaths dropped to 790 in 2018. However, while the number dropped, overdose deaths linked to synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl, rose by 10 percent across all age groups.
Overall, the number of deaths from drug overdoses remains low. But the rate of overdose deaths among teens and young adults is on the rise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in 2015, 4,235 people between the ages of 15 and 24 died from a drug-related overdose. More than half of those deaths were the result of opioid use.
And even more sobering, the CDC estimates that for every young adult overdose death, there are 119 emergency room visits and 22 treatment admissions.
Preventing teen overdose deaths
Despite these frightening statistics, parents and doctors can form a first line of defense to protect vulnerable teens.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers this advice on how to stem the tide of teen opioid overdose deaths:
- Education: One in four teenagers and nearly one-third of parents believe attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) prescription drugs can help with school performance — even if the youngster does not have ADHD. SAMHSA recommends that parents, children, and prescribers become educated on how such medication affects developing brains.
- Medication Storage and disposal: Parents and other adults must become more aware of how they store or dispose of opioid pain relievers. SAMHSA reports that two-thirds of teens who misused opioids say they obtained the opioids from family and friends. Usually, all they had to do was look in a medicine cabinet. By hiding or even locking up these misused drugs, parents and other adults can curb easy access to these lethal medications.
- Prescription drug monitoring: This one is up to doctors and pharmacists. Doctors are being urged not to prescribe painkillers so easily. And, pharmacists need to check prescription drug registries as a way to identify potential over-prescribing and misuse.
Also helping on the education front is the NIDA for Teens: The Science Behind Drug Abuse website. On this site, parents, teens, and even educators can find the latest trends and statistics to combat drug abuse and misuse. The site also offers a slew of resources that include games and challenges for teens and parents to test their knowledge.
Keeping teens safe from opioid drug abuse is a team effort. And perhaps the best tool is parents and teens learning about the dangers of such drugs together.
Opioids and adolescents. (2019, May 13). HHS.gov. https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/adolescent-development/substance-use/drugs/opioids/index.html#prevalence
Teen drug use is down—But teen overdoses are up. (n.d.). NIDA for Teens. https://teens.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/teen-drug-use-down-teen-overdoses-up
Teen prescription drug misuse and abuse | SAMHSA. (2020, May 4). | SAMHSA – Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. https://www.samhsa.gov/homelessness-programs-resources/hpr-resources/teen-prescription-drug-misuse-abuse
Teens: Facts on drugs and their effects. (n.d.). NIDA for Teens. https://teens.drugabuse.gov/
As if the Coronavirus isn’t already worrisome enough, researchers suggest a higher vulnerability for drug users. Those who struggle with addiction may be at higher risk for complications and death upon contracting the virus. COVID-19 and addiction are truly not a good mix.
The Coronavirus wreaks havoc on the lungs. Those who smoke cigarettes, marijuana, and those who vape may have a harder time fighting off the virus.
But those who use drugs such as methamphetamine and opioids are also vulnerable during this pandemic.
Methamphetamine causes breathing problems. The constriction of blood vessels heightens the risk of heavy damage to the respiratory system. Users already face damage to their kidneys and livers as a result of methamphetamine use. Both long and short-term users will be in a vulnerable position.
Opioid users face even more complications due to the effects of slow breathing. Increasing the likelihood that if an opioid user contracts COVID-19 they will experience additional complications in terms of oxygen levels. With little to no oxygen coming to the brain, this could rapidly result in brain damage.
Should Drug Users Seek Help During This Time?
The short answer is yes. Drug users should seek help during this time. Addiction treatment centers all over the US have been rapidly adapting their programs. This includes adding numerous health and safety measures to combat the spread of Coronavirus. Fighting addiction and the coronavirus at the same time is not easy. It’s been described as fighting an epidemic in the middle of a pandemic. Addiction treatment centers must still save lives during this time.
Our Phoenix and Scottsdale facility staff have been working hard over the last few weeks to implement health and safety measures. Any and all staff that are able to work from home, are doing so. Telemedicine has been implemented across all groups, individual sessions, and visitations. We have implemented an initial quarantine for new patients. We have published several statements on Coronavirus. These statements can help you better understand our mission during this pandemic.
It’s important to remember that just like the COVID-19 pandemic is a life-or-death situation, addiction continues to be a life-or-death situation during the pandemic.