We have an adolescent opioid crisis on our hands. Opioid overdose is among the fastest growing drug problems in the United States. More people than ever are dying from opioid overdose ever, reaching 43,000 in 2017 alone, with 70% being cited as preventable. While the number of deaths from drug overdose remains low overall, the rate of opioid overdose deaths among adolescents is increasing. The non-medical use of prescription drugs is also the highest among young adults. In October 2017, President Trump even declared the opioid crisis as a public health emergency.
COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into everyone’s lives and daily routine. While there is no evidence yet that suggests overdoses from opioids have increased during shelter in place, one can imagine that this time can be hard for people who are already struggling with an addiction or are going through recovery.
What are Opioids
Opioids are a class of drugs that include synthetic drugs such as fentanyl, prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone (OxyContin), stimulants to treat ADHD such as Adderall, and illegal drugs such as heroin. Some of these drugs are prescribed but the misuse of these drugs can lead to addiction and dependence. This can often lead to overdoses or even death. Data shows that the majority of the misuse is actually due to prescription opioids and not heroin, which is usually what people think of first. Between 2008 and 2018, data shows that prescription and synthetic opioid deaths outnumbered heroin deaths.
Why this is a problem
According to the American Public Health Association, nearly 80% of opioid overdoses involve multiple substances, which compounds the risk of a fatal overdose. Research also indicates that people who take opioid painkillers can quickly develop a tolerance for the drug. Adolescents can access opioids easier than ever through different channels. Adolescents are in a transformative phase of their life that can be influenced by external factors and forces. They may have different motivations, whether that is purely to feel better, to lose weight, to deal with their problems or to relieve pain. It can also come from peer pressure. Adolescents also are now under more stress than ever, with high social standards of getting into a good college and getting a good job. There is also a social stigma surrounding opioid use, which can make adolescents and any user in general to refrain from seeking help from traditional channels. This isolates the user into a dark corner where they feel alone, further deepening their addiction to opioids.
What America is doing to combat this problem
The US government currently does not track death rates for every drug specifically. However, the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does collect information on the commonly used drugs. On April 1st, U.S. Attorney Michael Baily announced that more than $163 million in Department of Justice grants have been made available for communities that struggle with the opioid crisis. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is also committed to preventing rampant opioid misuse by highlighting five strategies to protect Americans.
One that I would like to highlight is “empower consumers to make safe choices”. They developed a Rx Awareness program that aims to educate everyone about the dangers and risks of prescription opioids. Although this program is well thought out, it is buried deep within their website. The truth is that troubled adolescents will most likely not seek out advice from the CDC when going through hardships and adversity.
How else can America do to reverse the tide?
We are in a time where technology is all around us. I believe that there is a way to provide adolescents with better access to different options that can improve their opioid use disorder. Here are some suggestions that are top of mind:
1. Better programs to educate friends and families about opioid addiction
Parents, friends, and families of adolescents who are addicted to opioids have a tough task on their hands. But the reality is that they are the key to the prevention and early intervention of opioid misuse. The government and local officials should provide programs for friends and family who are concerned about their loved ones. At the end of the day, the best chances to rewrite the path of an adolescent’s life lies in the hands of his/her friends and family.
2. Better research funding and data collection
As mentioned above, the US government currently does not track the death rates for every drug but only the most common used drugs. While that may have been sufficient a decade ago, I believe that the government should invest more resources into collecting more data and researching the effects of opioid addiction and ways to counteract dependence on such drugs.
3. Take a hard look at drugs such as OxyContin
Most people are familiar with the controversy surrounding the prescription analgesic OxyContin. It has become one of the most popular street drugs that can induce a feeling similar to that of heroin. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy due to lawsuits stating that the senior executives knew about the addictive nature of the drug. This opens up a whole new cans of worms about how to regulate these drug companies but I believe these conversations are beneficial to the future of the pharmaceutical industry.
Looking into the future
He adolescent opioid crisis is something that cannot be ignored. As someone who has had a loved one go through an opioid crisis, I personally hope that the United States can alleviate this problem and save adolescent lives.
⁃ HHS.gov, “Opioids and Adolescents”. https://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/adolescent-development/substance-use/drugs/opioids/index.html#ftn7
⁃ APHA.org, “Prescription Drug Overdose”. https://www.apha.org/topics-and-issues/prescription-drug-overdose
⁃ Drugabuse.gov, “Overdose Death Rates”. https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
⁃ Yourvalley.net, “The battle of addiction during the time of novel coronavirus”. https://yourvalley.net/stories/the-battle-of-addiction-during-the-time-of-novel-coronavirus,154044
⁃ Theconversation.com, “Pharmacists could be front-line fighters in battle against opioid epidemic”, https://theconversation.com/pharmacists-could-be-front-line-fighters-in-battle-against-opioid-epidemic-123962
⁃ Nsc.org, “Opioids Drive Addiction, Overdose”, https://www.nsc.org/home-safety/safety-topics/opioids