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RACB: Rising Teen Overdoses are an Important Warning Sign for Parents

Rappahannock Area Community Services Board wants parents to understand the risks faced by today’s teens

In early May, the Prince William County Police Department issued an urgent warning to parents.

“We implore parents and guardians to take immediate action to actively engage with their children and loved ones as soon as possible about the dangers of drug use and encourage constructive dialogue to prevent further deaths and illness,” stated a “community awareness message” released by the department.

This message came after the deaths of two boys in the county—ages 14 and 15—were linked to counterfeit forms of the drug Percocet that testing revealed were laced with fentanyl.

“Fentanyl is known to be extremely fatal, even in the smallest doses if the effects of an overdose are not recognized and treated immediately,” the department warned in its message to the community.

Drug overdose deaths among adolescents are a growing problem, and one that parents should be vigilant about.

JAMA published a national study in April showing that fatal overdose deaths among adolescents nearly doubled from 492 in 2019 to 954 in 2020. Because overall drug use rates among American youth remained stable during this time period, researchers concluded that the illicit drug supply has become far more dangerous than it was a decade ago, with additions like illicit fentanyls and other synthetics greatly increasing the risk that experimentation could lead to death.

Drug use and mental health

Adding to this crisis is the fact that teen mental health is suffering.

Data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this spring indicate that in 2021, 37% of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44% reported that they had persistently felt sad or hopeless over the past year.

Dr. Sunny Shin is an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work whose research focuses on childhood traumatic experiences and addiction. He developed the Rise Above curriculum, a social-emotional learning and substance use prevention program for grades 4 through 12. Shin said psychological well-being has traditionally been one of the biggest predictors of teen substance abuse.

“We call it the self-medication hypothesis, where they use nicotine, alcohol, cannabinoids and other chemicals to treat their own symptoms of anxiety, depression, lack of sleep,” or other problems, he said.

Academic pressure and peer pressure also come into play. But the presence of chemicals such as fentanyl in drugs that teens have access to means that experimentation or giving in to peer pressure on a whim can come with a lethal cost.

“We see more and more lethal chemicals out there, and unfortunately it’s very easy to buy those without even knowing it,” Shin said.

Even when teens get substances from within their own homes, such as abusing prescription or over-the-counter medications, marijuana, or purchasing some of the readily available vaping products on the market, Shin notes that it’s important for parents to keep in mind that teenage brains are still growing, and that these chemicals affect kids differently than they do adults.

That can be a difficult message to get across to teens in an environment that is sending them a constantly evolving message about the societal acceptance of certain substances.

This includes everything from the marketing of vaping products in kid-friendly flavors to recent state legislation that makes it legal for adults to possess and cultivate marijuana in Virginia.

“The perceptions that teens have toward all of these products have been changed a lot in the last couple of years,” he said.

Drugs as a means for self-harm

The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) reported in May that self-harm visits to hospital emergency departments among Virginia youth aged 9 to 18 years more than doubled from 6,520 visits in 2016 to 14,298 visits in 2021.

Ninety-three percent of nonfatal self-harm hospitalizations were due to drug poisoning.

“What we know is that teens who use substances—whether alcohol, opioids or other drugs—are at an increased risk for self-harm,” said Jordan Brooks, Regional Suicide Prevention Initiative Coordinator for the community services boards within Health Planning Region 1 (which includes the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board). “They tend to use alcohol and other drugs to manage those difficult feelings instead of opening up about them.”

Brooks co-leads Lock and Talk Virginia, a suicide prevention program that encourages Virginians to secure lethal means such as drugs and firearms, and to talk openly about mental health and suicide.

One important step for parents to take is to secure all medications in a locked box in the household, as research shows that putting even a few minutes between a suicidal person and lethal means can greatly reduce the likelihood of an actual suicide attempt. Firearms—which VDH statistics show cause 51% of all youth suicides—should also be locked up separately from ammunition, with trigger locks as another option for preventing their use.

But in addition to locking up lethal means, it’s equally important for parents to talk openly about their children’s emotional well-being.

“One of the biggest protective factors against suicide in youth is the ability to feel connected at home, with friends and at school,” Brooks said. “Let them know that you are there, you love them no matter what and you are there to listen and talk. There is no easy way to have these conversations, but it can be as simple as saying, ‘I am concerned about you. I love you.’ If you are noticing things like behavioral changes or other warning signs, put that on the table.”

Brooks says it’s important not to downplay or judge a teen’s feelings, and to not be deterred if they don’t seem to be listening—keep finding ways to have the conversation.

Shin said research continues to show that sitting down regularly for a family dinner can be a huge protective factor for teen mental health and substance abuse.

“Having a routine where you sit down with your children and eat dinner on a regular basis is one of the biggest protective factors that a parent can provide,” he said. “Engage them in conversation about their lives. It doesn’t have to be—let’s talk about vaping today and marijuana tomorrow. Simply providing that connection is a great way to reduce potential use or abuse of illegal chemicals.”

Resources for Parents

Parents of children experiencing a mental health crisis can call the Rappahannock Area Community Service Board’s Emergency Services Line to connect with local resources: 540-373-6876

Visit rappahannockareascsb.org/prevention to learn about various programs and training that RACSB offers in the community for youth substance use prevention, resilience, suicide prevention and mental wellness.

Visit lockandtalk.org to learn practical steps that can help prevent suicides and promote mental health within your household and community.

Visit livevapefreeva.org for resources for parents and teens to Live Vape Free.

Visit https://bit.ly/PlanningDistrict16MedicationCollectionSites for locations of permanent medication collection bins to safely dispose of expired and unused medications.

Emily Freehling
Emily Freehling
Emily Freehling is an award-winning journalist who helps Fredericksburg Parent and Family's advertisers tell valuable stories through magazine advertorials and videos. Emily also produces content for a wide variety of other clients and outlets. Find her on LinkedIn and at emilyfreehling.com.

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