A new analysis of trends in drug overdose deaths among adolescents aged 14 to 18 years finds drug overdose deaths dramatically increased by 94% between 2019 and 2020 and continued to climb by 20% from 2020 to 2021, despite holding steady from 2010 through 2019. This contrasts with the trends observed in the overall U.S. population which experienced a much smaller percent change during this period (29.48% and 11.48%, respectively), but had larger numbers and a steady increase of overdose deaths between 2010 to 2021. Researchers do not attribute this sharp rise in adolescent overdose deaths to an increase in drug use among these teens, but rather, attributing the deaths to the influx of illicit fentanyl and other synthetic drugs.

Between 2019 and 2020, adolescent drug overdose deaths involving illicit fentanyl and synthetics increased by almost 170% and continued to increase by almost 30% between 2020 and 2021. Illicit fentanyl and synthetics were identified in 77% of adolescent overdose deaths in 2021. This is in stark contrast from 2010 when it was identified in only 7% of overdose deaths. Other notable increases by substance type was observed for benzodiazepines (100%), cocaine (59%), prescription opioids (42%), and methamphetamine (30%) between 2019 and 2020. Changes were also observed when characterized by race and ethnicity with the highest overdose death rate occurring among American Indian and Alaskan natives trailed by Latinx adolescents. Black or African American, non-Hispanic adolescent populations saw the lowest overdose death rates.

Youth prevention efforts should address the root causes of substance use and deploy evidence-based strategies to reduce risk factors and promote and enhance protective factors. Prevention efforts must also include increased access to substance use and mental health services tailored to gender, race, and ethnic populations; screening adolescents for substance use disorders; and expanding naloxone access particularly in identified hot spots and schools. These efforts are crucial in ending the current overdose crisis and will not only impact the children growing up today, but future generations.

Reference: Friedman J, Godvin M, Shover CL, Gone JP, Hansen H, Schriger DL. Trends in Drug Overdose Deaths Among US Adolescents, January 2010 to June 2021. JAMA. 2022;327(14):1398–1400. doi:10.1001/jama.2022.2847