Opioid overdose death rates have tripled among kids and teenagers over the last 20 years, a new study shows. According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, more than 9,000 American youth have died due to accidental overdose related to opioids since 1999.
Julie Gaither, the lead author of the study and an instructor at the Yale School of Medicine, says that teenagers have largely died from unintentional overdoses using narcotics bought on the street or their parents’ prescription painkillers. Young children have either died from accidental ingestion of narcotics or intentional poisoning.
“These deaths don’t reach the magnitude of adult deaths from opioids,” said Gaither, “but they follow a similar pattern. As we consider how to contain this epidemic, parents, clinicians, and prescribers need to consider how children and adolescents are affected and how our families and communities are affected.”
Gaither and researchers collected data from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention between the years 1999 and 2016. Approximately 9,000 youth died from opioid-related poisonings. Up to 40% of overdoses happened at home.
Researchers found there was a small decrease in deaths between 2008 and 2009 because U.S. doctors began changing their prescribing habits. More than 1.5 billion people internationally suffer from chronic pain, and opioid prescriptions are often used to treat it. But, beginning in 2008, restrictions on opioid medications became more frequent.
Despite this drop, the number of deaths related to heroin and fentanyl have been increasing among teenagers. In 2015 alone, 6,000 teenagers suffered from heroin use disorder, and older teens accounted for 88% of those who died during the time of the study.
Approximately 25% of opioid-related deaths among children under the age of five, Gaither says, were intentional murders. But more research needs to done to get a better understanding of the role that abuse and neglect play in the deaths. Research also needs to be done on the parents’ own drug habits, Gaither says.
Parents’ drug habits and neglect are one of the reasons why U.S. schools have started offering therapy to children with families struggling with opioid addiction.
Up to 25% of U.S. schools are private and 75% are public. Although students suffering from family issues related to opioid addiction often struggle in school, it may be the only environment where those students have stability.
“I wish that more school offered [therapy] because the [opioid] epidemic is everywhere,” said Sarah Nadeau, a parent who adopted two girls from a family suffering from opioid addiction. “For a lot of these kids, school is the only place that is stable. They get their lunch here, they get their education here, so why not give them their support while they’re here at school?”
Gaither says that despite efforts to curb the opioid crisis among adults, there hasn’t been enough effort to stop the epidemic from spreading through families. Many accidental deaths among young children, she says, can be prevented by childproofing the packaging of prescription narcotics.
“It’s scary and sad to see all these people die,” said Dr. Scott Krakower, assistant unit chief of psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in New York City. “This should prompt the public and physicians to be more mindful about what’s happening.”
Krakower, who wasn’t involved in the study, suggests that parents lock away their prescription medications to keep them out of reach of their children. If they have unused pills, dispose of them properly by taking them back to the pharmacy.