Drugs and the pandemic have caused an overwhelming number of teenage and young adult deaths in recent years.
A recent Ohio State University (OSU) study published in JAMA Pediatrics has found that “families and friends may be mourning more than a million years of adolescent lives lost to overdose deaths in the last several years,” according to the authors. Far too many young lives are being lost to addiction each year, largely due to the opioid crisis.
The study looked at the overdose deaths of more than 21,000 adolsecent people between ages 10 and 24 over a four-year span using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s reported life expectancy of 78.8 years for individuals living in the United States. Specifically, the research team found that pre-adolescents and teenagers, ages 10 to 19, “cumulatively lost nearly 200,000 years of life due to unintentional drug overdoses from 2015 to 2019.” When the age range was broadened to 24 years old, that number increased to “1.25 million years lost.”
Many public health and addiction experts have contributed to the sharp rise in the number of deaths to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid up to 100 times more powerful than morphine, flooding the streets. The main sources of fentanyl have been China and Mexico and the problem continues to grow each year.
“Counting the number of adolescent deaths doesn’t accurately reflect what we lost when we lose someone so young,” said lead author Dr. O. Trent Hall, an addiction medicine physician at The Ohio State University. “Each one of these years is a year that people didn’t have with their loved one, and it’s important to think of that when we’re prioritizing our public health.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has also been a major contributing factor to the rising number of deaths in recent due to ongoing uncertainty and social distancing mandates.
“The pandemic was a big catalyst for social isolation, and addiction and mental illness is an isolating disease,” added Dr. Edwin Kim, medical director of the Charles O’Brien Center for Addiction Treatment at the University of Pennsylvania Health System. “A lot of younger folks, especially, don’t know how to ask for help.”
The CDC has indicated that recent data shows the deaths of young people caused by fentanyl have tripled in just two years, according to an analysis by Families Against Fentanyl (FAF). The same nonprofit reported “more than 370 deaths occurred as a result of fentanyl among teens ages 13 to 19 in the year ending in May 2019,” and that number has steadily increased since that time.
“It’s causing a tremendous amount of social unrest and heartbreak,” said FAF founder Jim Rauh.
Kim said that oftentimes adolescent individuals don’t even know they’re consuming the drug. He commented, “Drug dealers mix fentanyl with other drugs including heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine, so teens and young adults may not know they’re using it.”
In fact, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently reported that “42% of pills tested for fentanyl contained at least 2 mg of the drug,” which could easily lead to death.
The OSU authors state in their paper that, instead of focusing solely on adolescent fatalities, “more research is needed to determine how to best engage younger people with education, prevention, harm reduction and substance treatment, as well as community and family support.”
“We need to do more to screen young people for substance use and be able to offer them evidence-based treatment,” Hall said. “Addiction is a disease that often begins in adolescence, and it’s a critical time to intervene.”