Teenagers and the deadly reality of the opioid epidemic

By Regence
February 24, 2023
teen with pills

It’s natural for teenagers to want to have more freedom, trying things and take risks. Some risks, like fashion choices are benign. Others like using drugs can have serious, even deadly, consequences. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that among 14- to 18-year-olds, overdose deaths increased 94% from 2019 to 2020 and 20% from 2020 to 2021. Roughly 90% of overdose deaths in adolescents aged 10-19 years involved opioids and 83.9% involved illegally manufactured fentanyl.

“Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine,” said Dr. Mike Franz, senior medical director of behavioral health at Regence. “Medically, it can be used to treat severe or chronic pain in extremely low dosages. But the risk for overdoes significantly increases when it’s substituted for what someone thinks is heroin or put in counterfeit pills thought to contain a different substance.”

An unprecedented danger

A separate study from the CDC reported that in 2021, 12% of high school students had taken prescription pain medicine, such as codeine, Vicodin, OxyContin, Hydrocodone, or Percocet, without a doctor’s prescription. The same study reported 6% of high school students had misused prescription opioids such as codeine, Vicodin, OxyContin, Hydrocodone or Percocet during the previous 30 days.

This is especially concerning because most of the prescription drugs listed in the study are also the most common counterfeit pills. These counterfeit pills can be found for sale on popular social media platforms — making them widely accessible to anyone with an electronic device, including minors.

The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) recently released a public safety alert, sharing that more than 9.5 million counterfeit pills were seized in the first nine months of 2021 — more than the previous two years combined. DEA laboratory tests revealed two out of every five pills contained a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.

Talking to your children about drugs

All this news can seem daunting if you’re a parent trying to support your child as they transition to adulthood. Fortunately, it’s never too early to talk to kids about the dangers of experimenting with drugs and misusing prescription opioids.

“Talking to your kids about drugs helps keep them safe and lets them make informed choices. It won’t make them more likely to try drugs,” said Dr. Franz. “You can discuss topics like fentanyl at any time rather than waiting for the ‘right’ moment. Just make sure to keep the conversation ongoing and have multiple talks about your expectations.”

Dr. Franz also advises checking in with your child about their mental health on a regular basis. Encourage them to let you know if they are struggling with stress, anxiety, depression, or pain, so you can help.

We’re here to help

Whether you or your teen needs mental health care or substance use disorder treatment, we can help you find the behavioral health care option that fits your needs. Most of our health plans offer substance use disorder treatment from virtual care providers such as Boulder Care, Eleanor Health and Hazelden Betty Ford. Charlie Health treats teens and young adults ages 12-30, as well as their families. No referral is needed – you can visit the provider website and fill out their intake form for an appointment. Be sure to sign in to your regence.com account or call our customer service team at the number listed on your member ID card to verify which virtual care and traditional behavioral health options are available through your health plan.