Drug overdose deaths jumped among teens during the pandemic

The Faces of Fentanyl gallery of photos of fentanyl victims is seen at DEA headquarters in Arlington, Va., Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.

Salwan Georges | The Washington Post | Getty Images

According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose deaths among teens have increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, largely due to illicit fentanyl.

Monthly drug overdose deaths nearly tripled among teens aged 10 to 19 in the first two years of the pandemic. Deaths rose from 31 in July 2019 to a peak of 87 in May 2021, then fell to 51 in December 2021.

“Although deaths appear to have begun to decline in late 2021, they are still alarmingly high compared to 2019,” the authors wrote in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, released Thursday.

Over 2,200 teenagers overdosed during the 2.5-year period, 96% of whom were teenagers between the ages of 15 and 19. Fentanyl was implicated in 84% of deaths while opioids of any type were implicated in 91%.

Fentanyl deaths among teens nearly quadrupled, from 21 in July 2019 to a peak of 78 in May 2021, then declined to 44 in December 2021.

About 70% of the victims were boys and 30% girls. About 60% of those who died were white, 21% were Hispanic and 13% were black.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is used as a prescription drug in the United States to treat people with severe pain after surgery. But illegally manufactured fentanyl, often consumed in pill form, has become an increasingly common cause of overdose deaths.

There was evidence that 25% of teenage overdose deaths may have involved counterfeit pills that often look like OxyContin or Xanax, but frequently contain fentanyl. This is likely an underestimate because the pills at the scene were not always tested, according to the study.

“It is unclear whether the teens intended to take legitimate pharmaceutical drugs or whether they knew the pills were counterfeit,” the authors wrote.

About 41% of those who overdosed had a history of mental health issues. Some 24% had ever undergone mental health treatment, 19% had been diagnosed with depression and 15% had a history of suicidal behavior or self-harm.

The CDC study authors said educating teens about the dangers of fentanyl and expanding access to naloxone, a drug that can reverse an overdose, are crucial. Teenagers should also be made aware of the potential presence of illicit fentanyl in pills that may look like prescription drugs.

If you are having suicidal thoughts or are in distress, contact the Suicide and crisis lifeline to 988 for support and assistance from a qualified advisor.

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