Doctors link rise in teen overdose deaths to fentanyl use

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A pharmacist filling a prescription. Credit: WINK News

Teen overdose deaths are on the rise, and the pandemic is not the only thing to blame. More than three-quarters of those deaths in 2021 involved fentanyl.

Overdose deaths among teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 more than doubled from 2010 to 2021, hitting just below 1,150 teens in 2021, and more than 77% were related to fentanyl use. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin and extremely cheap to produce.

Dr. Joesph Lee, president and CEO of the Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic, located at 950 6th Ave. N. in Naples, is a child psychiatrist board-certified in addiction medicine, and he says it isn’t that more teens are using drugs, because nationwide data actually suggests that isn’t the case; it’s just that the teens who do use drugs are taking more chances.

“Young people are rolling the dice—they think they’re using something else, like Xanax, and they end up overdosing,” Lee said. “I think the pandemic has been incredibly tragic for lots of people, but especially young people… if you take away their social networks at school, for example, all the supervision that happens there, then you start to see higher-risk young people using more substances and having more fallouts.”

Lee says drug dealers will mix fentanyl into what kids think are pain medications or commonly used prescription medications, which can, in turn, make it very dangerous for young adults.

“They’re inherently different in how they actually access substances,” Lee said. “Everything from the amount of money they have to how tied they’re into technology compared to older people… what I started to see was young people getting drugs off the dark web, and they go to websites that you can’t find on Google using special software. And then bitcoin and cryptocurrency came around and that made it easy for them to transact and buy these substances.”

Researchers say these teen overdose deaths only account for around 1% of the country’s total, but teens experienced a greater relative increase than the overall population.

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