Teen Overdose Deaths Have Soared, Even Though Drug Use Hasn’t

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April 12, 2022, at 11:00 a.m.

U.S. News & World Report

Teen Overdose Deaths Have Soared


Illegal fentanyl is safely handled and contained.

According to the study, drugs like the highly potent fentanyl accounted for 77% of teen overdose deaths in 2021, and the mortality rate tied to such substances increased by 169% between 2019 and 2020.(Getty Images)

The lethality of the illicit drug supply appears to have driven an exponential rise in the overdose death rate among U.S. teens amid the COVID-19 pandemic – an increase that’s come without a parallel surge in drug use itself.

Read: Poor Mental Health Common Among Students During COVID ]

The overdose mortality rate among U.S. adolescents 14 to 18 years old rose by 94% between 2019 and 2020, from 2.36 deaths per 100,000 population to 4.57 per 100,000, according to the findings of an analysis published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The rate increased by another 20% to 5.49 deaths per 100,000 when comparing data from 2020 to provisional, annualized data for 2021.

In total, according to the study, there were 492 adolescent overdose deaths in 2019 and 954 in 2020, with data indicating another 1,146 in 2021.

Addiction Amid COVID-19

Steven Ash, 33, is photographed while working at the tire shop his family owns and where he overdosed just days before in Huntington, W.Va., Wednesday, March 17, 2021. Ash was 19 when he took his first OxyContin pill and his life unraveled after that, cycling through jails, he said. The last year has been particularly brutal. His cousin died from an overdose in somebody's backyard. He has a friend in the hospital in her 20s scheduled for open-heart surgery from shooting drugs with dirty needles, and the doctors aren't sure she'll make it. He had three agonizing surgeries himself from drug-related infections. He took more drugs to numb the pain, but it made things worse – a vicious cycle, he said. He knows he's putting his mother through hell. "I fight with myself every day. It's like I've got two devils on one shoulder and an angel on the other," he said. "Who is going to win today?" (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The increase in the overdose death rate marks a stark surge from what was a stable rate over the past decade. In 2010, for example, the fatal overdose rate was 2.4 deaths per 100,000. By contrast, according to the study, the overdose mortality rate among the overall U.S. population rose steadily over the decade, and went from 12.4 deaths for every 100,000 people in 2010 to 21.5 per 100,000 in 2019.

Teen overdose mortality also rose absent a drastic increase in young people reporting drug use. The percentage of eighth-graders reporting illicit drug use over the prior 12 months rose from 14.7% in 2011 to 15.6% in 2020, before falling to 10.2% in 2021, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Monitoring the Future survey.

Meanwhile, the share of 10th-graders reporting past-year illicit drug use fell from 31.1% in 2011 to 30.4% in 2020, and then down to 18.7% in 2021. The share of 12th-graders reporting the same fell from 40% in 2011 to 36.8% in 2020 and to 32% in 2021.

Lead study author Joseph Friedman, an addiction researcher and MD/Ph.D. candidate in the UCLA-Caltech Medical Scientist Training Program, calls the spike in teen overdose deaths “unprecedented,” and fears it could be the first sign of a longer-term trend.


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