We need a national strategy to address teenage opioid use
After declining for seven years, teenage drug overdose deaths grew by nearly 20 percent in 2015 in a worrying sign that the opioid crisis is reaching a younger and more vulnerable segment of the American population. New data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that 772 teens aged 15-19 died in 2015 from drug overdoses, compared to 658 the year before. This reverses a 26 percent fall in the rate of overdose deaths between 2007 and 2014.
The uptick in teen overdose deaths in 2015 is troubling for many reasons. Digging into the data, we see that teen overdose deaths were linked to the growing use of both heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. There was also a sharp 34 percent spike in deaths among teenage girls in the two years between 2013 and 2015, and a 15 percent increase for boys from 2014 to 2015. For both males and females, the majority of deaths were unintentional.
For some perspective, consider that teens still represent a small percentage of the 64,000 Americans – up 22 percent over 2015 - who died from drug overdoses in 2016. Yet the increase in teenage overdoses suggests that young people now have easier access to deadly drugs as well as a growing interest in them, after many years in which they had largely stayed away from drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Overall, the number of overdose deaths involving fentanyl or fentanyl analogues doubled from 2015 to 2016, the CDC found.
These findings come at a time when there are insufficient treatment resources dedicated to teenagers and adolescents. Even as drug use and overdoses rise, teen admissions to treatment facilities are going down. This reflects a continuing trend in the drug abuse treatment field that has long underserved adolescents. Although the overall number of clients in treatment fell by 19 percent between 2005 and 2015, the number for teens plummeted by 56 percent over the same time period, according to SAMHSA data.
The sudden rise in teenage overdose deaths in 2015 may be an aberration. But as the opioid crisis continues unabated, it is clear that young people are increasingly susceptible to addiction. Therefore, we must develop a national strategy to close the glaring gap in services for this age group. This should include prevention programs and treatment facilities targeted to young people and their unique developmental considerations. Intervening early when teens first show signs of addiction is the best way to avert a lifetime of drug use.
What we need to do:
Encourage federal, state and local authorities to increase funding to expand youth-oriented addiction programs, starting with prevention and outreach to stop or delay initiation of teen opioid use; provide more residential treatment programs of adequate duration and prioritize the involvement of families at all levels of treatment; and remove barriers to admission and broaden insurance coverage.