As drug overdoses among young adults surge while overall rates of drug use stay about the same, researchers are raising the alarm that young people who use drugs are in more danger and are more likely to experience a fatal overdose. Now more than ever, parents, public health officials, and opinion leaders must educate young people about the harm of drugs. Further, those who experiment with such substances must be convinced to seek treatment before it’s too late.
Concerning Information that Parents Need to Know
Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the overdose mortality rate among Americans ages 14 to 18 has almost doubled, rising 94% between 2019 and 2020. Then the fatality rate rose again, this time by 20%, between 2020 and 2021. All told, fatal overdoses among young people came in at 2.36 deaths for every 100,000 individuals in this age bracket in 2019. But by the end of 2021, about 5.49 young people died from drug overdoses for every 100,000 in this age group.1
As for what those figures mean in the total number of deaths, 492 young Americans died from drug overdoses in 2019, a tragedy all by itself. But in 2021, that year’s tragedy broke all previous figures since recording began, with 1,146 deaths among young people.
For much of the 2010s, it had seemed young Americans had avoided most of the surge in drug overdoses. For example, in 2010, fatal overdoses were at 2.4 per 100,000, almost identical to the 2019 rate of 2.36 per 100,000. Contrast that to the rising mortality rate for the overall population. That rate soared from 12.4 deaths for every 100,000 in 2010 to 21.5 deaths for every 100,000 in 2019.
It seems teen drug overdose deaths are now catching up with the rest of the population, a harsh tragedy for thousands of American families.
Rates of Drug Use Stayed the Same, and Risk for Harm Skyrocketed
Perhaps most alarming is that overall rates of drug use have remained mostly the same for young Americans. In short, rates of use have not more than doubled as overdoses have. This data suggests young people are using far more dangerous drugs than they were in previous years, making them more likely to overdose.
Some research suggests teen drug use has fallen in recent years, with the Monitoring the Future Survey report indicating that 10th-grader substance abuse declined from 31.1% to 18.7%. The share of 12th-graders reporting drug use also fell, from 40% in 2011 to 32% in 2021.2
Fentanyl Is the Culprit in a Growing Percentage of Teen Drug Deaths
So given the slight decline in drug use, what’s causing the spike in deaths? Fentanyl. According to the findings, fentanyl was present in at least 77% of teen overdose deaths in 2021. Sadly, in many such incidents, it was discovered that the teen had no way of knowing they were using a drug that had fentanyl in it. That data aligns with other reports that raise the alarm over how fentanyl is being mixed into the broader illicit drug supply without most addicts ever knowing it. This new trend is putting millions of lives at risk because it means drug users who may be trying to avoid fentanyl could easily still be exposed to it.
Fentanyl is an extremely potent synthetic opioid, ten times more potent than heroin and 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. For people who have never used the drug, just getting some fentanyl on exposed skin could be enough to cause an overdose.
Fentanyl may have originated as a pharmaceutical drug to treat “breakthrough” pain (pain symptoms that weren’t responding to conventional opioid treatments). However, most fentanyl-related overdoses today are caused by illicit fentanyl dealt on the streets and produced in clandestine drug labs.
Young Americans Still One of the Top Demographics for Overall Rates of Drug Abuse
While rates of drug use for teens may have fallen, overall rates for this age group are still quite high compared to older adult populations, especially when this age demographic is expanded to include young adults in their early-20s. Further, this should not be seen as a silver lining as the overall rate of drug abuse among young people has stayed mostly the same in recent years. The toxic nature of the drugs being used makes drug use at least twice as likely to cause death for young people than in previous years. Because of that, more young people are dying, even if the overall rate of drug use has stayed the same.
According to the data, young people between the ages of 13 and 25 consistently have one of the highest rates of drug abuse when compared to other age groups. According to the research in the Journal of the American Medical Association that was cited earlier, about 24% of young people report frequent drug abuse. That means about 8 million young people experiment with drugs and are either addicted to them or are at risk for addiction.
Given that drugs are becoming increasingly lethal, any degree of substance abuse among young people should be seen as a stark emergency, and parents should act quickly to intervene. These 8 million young people are at risk for death every time they use drugs, even if they think they’re using drugs that don’t have fentanyl mixed in.
Treatment and Prevention Are the Best Tools We Have for Helping Young People
Even as overall rates of drug use stay mostly the same for adults in their twenties and even dip for teens, American parents have to take the drug crisis seriously. Drug use is far more dangerous for young people, now more than ever, and the recent surge in overdose fatalities is evidence of that.
The problem isn’t likely to go away on its own. The researchers involved in the JAMA study that broke the news regarding teen overdoses are concerned that this may be the beginning of a new trend, not the end of one. To that point, study author Joseph Friedman, an addiction researcher and MD/Ph.D. and a candidate in the UCLA-Caltech Medical Scientist Training Program, had this to say: “This is very concerning because, in other subgroups of the population, when overdose death rates start to increase exponentially after having been flat, they tend to continue to do so for a while.”3
Parents must increase their efforts to educate their children about drug abuse to ensure they understand the danger of experimenting with drugs. And beyond that, parents need to have these conversations more than once and coach their kids on responding to peer pressure situations, politely declining drugs, and removing themselves from uncomfortable environments, if necessary.
And finally, if a young person becomes addicted to drugs, parents must take fast action to get them into a treatment center. Every instance of drug use could be fatal, and there is no time to waste. Residential drug and alcohol rehab centers can provide life-saving remedies for those hooked on mind-altering substances.