Opioid Overdoses on the Rise Once Again amongst Youth

Hands holding teens hand—opioid overdose.

Our teens face various struggles, challenges and seemingly difficult situations that come with the overall experience of growing up. We’ve all been there, and we’ve probably seen these struggles mirrored in the faces of our own teen children and our teen friends.

When our kids are going through their teen years, they are more likely to take risks, more likely to rebel, and more likely to act out. This is normal

However, it does require parents, teachers, older siblings, opinion leaders, church members, community leaders, and other family members and loved ones to educate their teens and to prevent them from going so far as to experiment with drugs. 

A little bit of rebelliousness and spontaneity is all a part of that great thing called life, but when drug use enters the scene, that’s going one giant step too far.

And why shouldn’t teens experiment with drugs as a “natural part of growing up”? A lot of their parents certainly did. But the teens of today need to stay sober because drug use in the 21st-century is becoming increasingly more lethal, and while teen drug use statistics may be level or decreasing, teen overdose statistics are increasing.

Two Decades of Drug Use — Too Many Lives Lost

The Yale School of Medicine was featured in U.S. News for a study they did which showed the full extent of teen drug use over the last twenty years. As 2018 came to a close, the Yale article totaled the numbers from every year since 1999 and found that about 9,000 lives were lost due to drug use in our teen population.

Keep in mind that the death rates among teens have not risen on a constant upwards trend since 1999. In the mid-2000s, we saw a decrease in total teen deaths per year, partially due to new regulations and changes in doctor prescribing habits (at that time teens were mostly dying from prescription drug misuse). But more recently, teen drug deaths started to increase again, mostly due to new, synthetic opioid drugs, an increase in heroin use, and some ongoing prescription drug use.

(U.S. News has a good recap of the last two decades in teen drug use, but for the full story from the Yale researchers, check out the JAMA Network.)

CNN Examines Detailed Trends in Teen Drug Use

Teenage boys sitting in an empty college dinning room

An article in CNN zoomed in on this issue, focusing on precise time frames, precise age demographics, and specific types of drugs involved in teen drug overdoses. 

According to the article’s compiled research, teen overdose deaths climbed by 19% from 2014 to 2015. Deaths went from 3.1 deaths per 100,000 teens to 3.7 deaths per 100,000 teens.

When we zoom the lens out a bit, the data becomes even more concerning. According to the research, the rate of teen overdose deaths from synthetic opioids has increased by more than 700% from 2002 to 2015. And the rate of teen overdose deaths from heroin increased 300% in that same period.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has research data which backs up the published information at CNN. According to a CDC report on adolescent drug use trends, “The death rate due to drug overdose among adolescents aged 15–19 more than doubled from 1999 ... to 2007 ..., declined by 26% between 2007 and 2014, and then increased in 2015.” 

Exact data for overdose trends among adolescents in 2016, 2017, and 2018 have not yet been fully compiled, but the trend itself is concerning enough.

On the Other Hand…

On the other hand, there’s a fair amount of research that indicates that teens are using drugs less often than they were before, which is good news. According to the Monitoring the Future Survey for 2016, teen use of marijuana, prescription drugs, alcohol, and tobacco are all on a slightly downward trend, or at the most are holding at a stable, relatively unchanging level of use.

So what does all of this mean? Teens are using substances less, but teen overdoses are increasing? How can this be?

The answer is that, while our nation is slowly making the risk factors and dangers of drug use clear to teens, when they do use drugs in spite of our warnings, their drug use habits are riskier. The risk comes from the fact that the drugs today are much more dangerous than those the teens of previous decades were exposed to. 

Now we must contend with synthetic opioids and other illegal street drugs that have been synthetically altered and tampered with to make them more potent—and as a result, more lethal. This is what the teens of today are getting their hands on, and this is what is killing them.

Plenty of Overdoses, Still Relatively Few Deaths

Teenager in Emergency Room

Let’s keep in mind one silver lining here. Teens are certainly overdosing in increasing numbers, but the total number of deaths from overdoses are still relatively low. 

For example, the CNN article tells us that in 2015, only 772 teens actually lost their lives from drug overdoses, which represents only 1.4% of the 52,404 people who died from drug overdoses that year.

We don’t really know why, despite the fact they often take as many or more risks with drugs than adults do, teenagers still somehow tend not to die from their drug interactions. 

Maybe it’s the resilience of a young, strong body. Maybe it’s the fact that they are usually just experimenting and they have not yet grown up to be hardened addicts who use drugs in quantities enough to create fatal overdoses. 

This is a silver lining—but that’s all it is. An individual who uses drugs and who escapes death from an overdose in his teen years will likely continue to use drugs in his twenties, and then the risk for death increases. 

Anyone, no matter their age, who is using drugs needs to be helped and treated for that habit. 

Our teens are the future of our country, the ones who will hold the reigns to our great nation in just a few years’ time. 

We need to make sure they are sober when that future becomes the present.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCSP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.