Intervention Would Have Prevented All Young Teen Overdose Deaths in Virginia

In a newly released full report, Virginia’s Child Fatality Review Team (CFRT) found that 26 teen overdose deaths that occurred in the state between 2009 and 2013 were fully preventable. The state’s CFRT studied the issue in response to the increase in overdose deaths throughout the state and across age groups. The number of deaths caused by poisoning or overdose in Virginia increased by 13% from 2012 to 2013. In addition to the findings that the teen deaths were preventable, CFRT also discovered risk factors and other important facts.

Preventable Overdose Deaths

Researchers have fully examined teenage overdose deaths. All 26 instances of someone between the ages of 13 and 17 dying from an overdose were carefully examined. The team saw some factor or factors in each case that indicated an intervention could have prevented the death. Three-quarters of these deaths were caused by an overdose of prescription drugs, mostly narcotics, which follows the pattern of overdoses around the country.

Teens Who Overdose Had History of Substance Abuse

The biggest risk factor seen in the report was a history of substance abuse. Seventy-seven percent of those who died had a history of abusing drugs, and 39% had a history of abusing one of the fatal substances found in the body at the time of death. This indicates a pattern of substance abuse and that interventions and treatment could have helped avoid the deaths. There were even more signs that these teens were in need of interventions. Fifteen percent had previously been hospitalized for accidental overdoses, while 54% specifically had a history of abusing prescription drugs. Prescription drugs were the main culprits in the overdose deaths, with 84% of those being caused by narcotics. In 27% of the cases, a teen actually had a prescription for the drug that caused the overdose. It was only in three cases that the prescription drugs were purchased illegally. Over-the-counter medications were implicated in four of the overdose deaths.

Family Substance Abuse

Another big risk factor for the teens who died was substance abuse in the family. More than half of the teens came from homes in which the parents or other caregivers were abusing drugs or had a history of substance abuse. In 58% of the teen deaths, the parents were found to have been enabling the child’s substance abuse. In many cases, the parents supplied the drugs to the teens. In 8% of the cases, the teen provided drugs for the parents to abuse.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse

Mental health was another factor in many of the overdoses. Half of the teens had a current or earlier diagnosis of depression, while there were also significant instances of ADHD, anxiety and oppositional defiant disorder diagnoses. More than half had received some kind of mental health treatment and 35% had already been treated for substance abuse to some degree. The report from the CFRT is tragic news. Twenty-six young people did not have to die. Interventions by adults at school, by parents, by doctors or by other caregivers or by entering drug rehab could have prevented their deaths. Perhaps most disturbing is the enabling role that many parents played in these overdose deaths. When parents cannot be relied upon to protect their children, other interventions are needed. With this information from the report, Virginia officials hope to be able to better prevent future teen overdose deaths.

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