Overdoses – Leading Cause of Death for Young People?

08 / 22 / 2017

This is a great article on overdose and young people.

Experts explain what, exactly, is going on.

You’ve likely heard it before: The United States is in the middle of a drug epidemic that’s largely fueled by opioids. But startling new data shows just how terrible this problem has gotten. Drug overdose deaths appear to have risen nearly 20 percent from 2015 to 2016, possibly making them the leading cause of death for people under 50, according to early data compiled by The New York Times. By the Times’ estimate, there were 59,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, potentially making this the largest annual jump in overdose deaths ever recorded in the United States.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention won’t be able to calculate final drug overdose numbers until December because it takes a long time to certify those numbers. But the Times took estimates from hundreds of state health departments and county coroners and medical examiners, representing data from states and counties that accounted for 76 percent of overdose deaths in 2015, to see how the numbers had changed. According to this early data, there was a large increase in deaths due to overdose in East Coast states, especially in Maryland, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Maine. Beyond that, Ohio in particular was hit hard: The state had an estimated 25 percent increase in drug overdose deaths in 2016.

Not only that, early data from 2017 implies that since opioid use is still extremely common, drug overdose deaths may rise again this year. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, more than 2 million people in America are dependent on opioids, and a whopping 95 million used prescription painkillers last year.

While the Times‘ estimates are just that, Lindsey Vuolo, J.D., M.P.H., Associate Director of Health Law and Policy at The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, tells SELF that they’re in line with what her organization has been tracking as well.

This terrible news has experts rightfully concerned—and wondering how to prevent these tragic deaths.

“We continue to learn that this crisis is worse than we had feared,” Michael Lyons, M.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine and director of the Early Intervention Program at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, tells SELF. “We might have hoped that our national response so far would have begun to turn the tide…but clearly we are not yet close to achieving the speed and volume of effort needed to stop this catastrophe.”

Scott Dehorty, L.C.S.W.-C., executive director at Maryland House Detox, Delphi Behavioral Health, tells SELF that this epidemic started with the over-prescription of opioids like Oxycontin and Vicodin, which people can easily become dependent on due to their powerful painkilling abilities. Despite attempts to raise awareness of the dangers of opioid use and the highly addictive nature of these drugs, there hasn’t been enough of a significant decline in prescription opioids in the United States, James J. Galligan, Ph.D., a professor of pharmacology and toxicology and director of the neuroscience program at Michigan State University, tells SELF. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the number of prescription opioids sold in the United States almost quadrupled between 1999 and 2014. In the latter year, over 240 million opioid prescriptions were written, which is enough for every American adult to have their own bottle of pills, according to the Department of Health & Human Services. But even with that surge, there hasn’t been an overall change in how much pain Americans report—a glaring sign that something is very, very wrong.

The increase in overdose deaths is not surprising given that a lot of the focus to reduce opioid abuse has been largely on these prescription drugs, Sarah Wakeman, M.D., medical director for substance use disorders at the Massachusetts Center for Community Health, tells SELF. “While this may have a long-term effect on preventing future cases of prescription opioid use disorder, in the short-term it likely increases deaths as individuals with addiction turn to riskier street opioids,” she says. Oftentimes, prescription pills can get too expensive or difficult to get, so people addicted to opioids may seek out options like heroin instead.

The introduction of even more powerful street opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil, which can be slipped into heroin without a user realizing it, didn’t help. “The use of heroin has spiked with the crackdown of prescription opioids, and the introduction of [fentanyl and its derivatives like carfentanil] into heroin has caused individuals to overdose at alarming rates,” Dehorty says.

First responders will often use Narcan (aka naloxone, an opiate antidote) to try to help someone who has overdosed, but it can take large amounts to help a person in this situation, Dehorty explains. This is especially true for the extremely powerful opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil.

Of course, fixing such a huge issue is no easy task. But something clearly needs to be done.

According to Dr. Lyons, a “truly massive response, much larger than we have had so far, is immediately necessary at all levels of society and government.” “For the most part, our country simply has not come to terms with how large and how difficult this problem is,” he says. “This problem should never have happened at this scale. Now that it has, we are tragically behind in fixing it.”

Dr. Wakeman agrees, and says she unfortunately expects things to get worse before they get better. “I think the death rate will continue to rise until we implement evidence-based strategies proven to save lives on a broad scale,” she says. The CDC is approaching the problem from various angles: gathering more data, including that to identify vulnerable communities and determine whether prevention strategies are effective, putting state intervention efforts in place, and better training health care providers on the delicacies of opioid prescribing. Only time will tell how well these methods are truly working.

Dr. Galligan says that it’s important for people to understand that drug addiction is a medical problem, adding, “We need to ensure that funding is available to support drug addiction treatment and that private- and government-provided insurance cover treatment costs.” Relapses are common, he says, so treatment needs to be persistent, and families need to be supportive of their loved ones who have substance use disorders.

Since drug overdoses may now be the leading cause of death for young people, Dr. Wakeman says it’s important to have honest conversations with kids and adolescents about the dangers of opioids using facts, not fear tactics. While she says “there unfortunately isn’t a lot of evidence on what works to prevent opioid use disorder,” if your child or teenager is prescribed powerful pain medication, these tips can help.

Dr. Galligan agrees that early intervention is key. “One of the predictors of a lifelong problem with addictive drugs is the age at which drugs are first used,” he says, noting that the adolescent brain is especially vulnerable. “Adolescents need to get a strong and persistent message about the long-term risks of early drug use, including cigarettes/vaping, and how early drug use shapes brain maturation and decision-making,” he says.

Kids should also be warned about marijuana—Vuolo says there have been cases where even pot has been laced with fentanyl. While that’s a rare threat, it’s still very much worth noting that marijuana can negatively affect adolescents’ growing brains. “Being aware of the dangers of these drugs may deter many adolescents from trying them and prevent accidental death,” Vuolo says. “Honest discussions are crucially important.”

If there are opioids in your home, Dehorty says it’s essential to keep a close eye on them, handle them responsibly, and seek help from a doctor or other medical professional if you feel that you can’t. “Just because someone has a prescription, that in no way means it’s safe,” he says.

Comments are closed.

Search The Directory

State Selected
Number of Locations

Search Our Directory

Note: Options appear after the previous selection is made.