Teen overdose deaths rising, even as drug use declines

Last month, the Journal of the American Medical Association released a study reporting that adolescent overdose deaths in the United States have more than doubled over the past decade. Despite drug use among teens being at a historic low, the amount of fentanyl being sold to teens in the form of counterfeits of common medications is driving the spike.

From 2010 to 2021, the number of teen deaths from drug overdoses rose from 518 to 1,146 deaths annually. The increase is not coming from more teens using drugs, but rather from drug use becoming more dangerous. In 2021, fentanyl was involved in more than 77% of adolescent overdose deaths.

Here is the important thing to understand about this trend. We are not talking about addicts in these situations. There is a rumor going around schools that Ritalin and Adderall (used to treat ADHD), as well as Xanax (used to treat anxiety), will help students without these problems to learn quicker, focus better, and provide extra energy to study longer. Many students, stressed out from academic pressure, fall prey to these rumors, hoping these drugs will help them to improve their grades. Teens tend to think these medications are safe to use because they are prescribed by doctors.

High school and college students are buying what they think are legitimate prescription pills, but actually are drugs that were made in the underground market and pressed to look real. Counterfeits are laced with fentanyl, packaged to look near identical to legitimate medicines and sold through social media referrals to teens who are unaware of the risks they pose. Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin and is extremely cheap to produce, according to the US Drug Enforcement Agency. In addition, because the drugs are made on the black market, the levels of fentanyl can vary widely so that people taking the pills have no real way to know what they are getting. So, students think they are buying “study drugs” that will benefit their academic performance, but instead they are purchasing fentanyl, which is increasing overdoses across the nation.

Experts advise parents to revise their drug talks. Give your teen the facts:

  • While prescription stimulants do promote wakefulness, studies have found that they do not enhance learning or thinking ability.
  • Research also shows that students who abuse prescription stimulants have lower GPAs in high school and college than those who don’t.
  • Many adolescents believe that pills are a “safer” way to get high or improve academic performance because they think they are getting real prescription medication, but these counterfeit pills are far more dangerous than even heroin. Teens need to be aware of this fact and understand the effects of fentanyl, both for their own safety and as a way to get the message to their friends.
  • Explain what an overdose looks like, how to access naloxone (used to treat overdoses), and how to test drugs for the presence of fentanyl.

Some families of adolescents fear that honest conversations about safe practices to reduce overdose deaths could open the door for teens to begin using, but experts say this is untrue. It’s important for trustworthy adults to provide teens with factual information. The facts both empower adolescents to make smarter decisions and give them the message that their families are open to answering their questions and providing assistance when they need it.

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