Suicide rates for Americans under the age of 18 are rising at unprecedented rates, and a new report points to a likely culprit: The ongoing epidemic of opioid abuse.
It's not that more kids and teens became abusers of opioids, it's that conditions in their environments worsened due to the crisis, say a team led by David Powell. He's a senior economist at RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.
In this way, young people "were negatively affected by the broader effects of the illicit opioid crisis,” Powell contends in a RAND news release.
A key moment behind this tragic trend was the "reformulation" of opioid medications such as prescription Oxycontin into more abuse-proof pills.
That ended up driving people to use more illicit forms of opioids, such as heroin and fentanyl.
So, “areas more impacted by the transition to illicit opioids due to higher rates of previous OxyContin misuse showed sharper growth in child suicide rates," Powell pointed out.
For years, U.S. data had shown a steady decline in suicides among kids and teens.
However, beginning in 2010 those numbers rose again. By 2020, suicide became the second biggest killer of people ages 10 to 17, the RAND report noted.
Why the tragic turnaround?
To help answer that question, Powell's group compared child suicide rates in each state. They found the biggest uptick in cases occurred in states where the shift to illicit opioids was most pronounced.
“The results are consistent with the growth in illicit opioid use among the adult population generating worsening conditions for children by increasing rates of child neglect,” Powell said.
His team believes that just one move — the reformulation of Oxycontin to thwart abuse — could explain almost half of the rise in U.S. child suicides between 2011 and 2020.
"The transition to illicit opioids has altered households and society in several documented ways and likely on countless unstudied dimensions," Powell added.
He noted that drug overdoses didn't change much for kids during 2011-2020. That suggests that changes in kids' living conditions are behind the surge in suicides, not any rise in child/adolescent drug abuse.
The RAND study was published recently in the journal Demography.
If you or a loved are struggling in mental health crisis, help is at hand at the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.