According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose deaths among youth rose sharply during the Covid-19 pandemic, largely due to illegal fentanyl.
Monthly drug overdose deaths among youth aged 10 to 19 nearly tripled in the first two years of the pandemic. Deaths rose from 31 in July 2019 to a peak of 87 in May 2021 and then fell to 51 in December 2021.
“Although the number of deaths appears to have decreased in late 2021, they are still alarmingly higher than in 2019,” the authors wrote in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, released Thursday.
More than 2,200 adolescents overdosed during the 2½ year period, 96% of whom were teenagers aged 15 to 19. Fentanyl was implicated in 84% of deaths, while opioids of any kind were implicated in 91%.
Fentanyl deaths among adolescents nearly quadrupled from 21 in July 2019 to a peak of 78 in May 2021 and then declined to 44 in December 2021.
About 70% of the victims were boys and 30% girls. About 60% of the dead were white, 21% Hispanic, and 13% 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 experiencing severe pain after surgery. But illegally manufactured fentanyl, often taken as a pill, has become an increasingly common cause of overdose deaths.
There was evidence that 25% of teenage overdose deaths may have been related to counterfeit pills, which often resemble OxyContin or Xanax but often also contain fentanyl. That’s likely an underestimate, since the pills present at the crime scene weren’t always tested, according to the study.
“Whether adolescents intended to take legal pharmaceutical drugs or knew pills were counterfeit is unclear,” the authors write.
About 41% of those who overdosed had a history of mental health problems. About 24% had prior psychiatric treatment, 19% had been diagnosed with depression, and 15% had a history of suicide or self-harm.
The authors of the CDC study said it’s crucial to educate teenagers about the dangers of fentanyl and expand access to naloxone, a drug that can reverse an overdose. Teens should also be educated about the potential presence of illegal fentanyl in pills, which may resemble prescription drugs.
If you are having suicidal thoughts or are in distress, call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 for support and help from a trained counselor.