There has been an alarming recent spike in the number of teenagers committing suicide.
Researchers and mental health professionals have pointed to several possible causes for the increase, such as bullying, the corrosive effect of social media and the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why,” which critics say oversimplifies and in some ways glamorizes teen suicide.
Increasingly, however, it is becoming clear the opioid crisis is having a secondary effect, either with young people losing hope in the face of addiction, or seeing families and loved ones lost to the disease.
“Researchers estimate that about a third of all opioid deaths are actually suicides,” Kimberly O’Brien, a research scientist who studies adolescent suicide at Boston Children’s Hospital, told the Boston Globe earlier this month. “We could have more suicides by opioids than we know. If you’re addicted to opioids you can feel helpless and hopeless.”
The overall numbers are staggering.
According a recent study from Harvard Medical School, the suicide rate among teens aged 15 to 19 rose 47 percent between 2000 and 2017. For those between the ages of 20 and 24, the rate grew by 36 percent.
The study culled years of data from the Centers for Disease Control, and while it was not designed to identify underlying factors in suicide, lead author Oren Miron noted that opioid use has been shown to drive suicidal behavior among addicts and their loved ones.
“The entire community is bleeding,” he said. “Kids see less of a future, they see more of their friends dying.”
It’s a phenomenon not always noted when public officials talk about addressing the opioid crisis. But the Harvard analysis, the latest in a long line of reports noting the correlation, should spur a new conversation about how best to identify drug use, depression and anxiety in teenagers, and how to help them, as individuals and as a group.
A study released in May, for example, noted the increased risk of suicide by adolescents whose parents are grappling with opioid addiction. The risk factor for suicide by children of parents who hold an opioid prescription is twice that of others.
The study detailed a tragic chain: Adults who suffer from opioid addiction are more likely to attempt suicide than those who do not. And children whose parents attempt to commit suicide are more likely to make an attempt themselves.
“The epidemics of adult opiate abuse and child suicidal behavior appear to be linked, and the disturbing upward trends in mortality due to opiates and due to child suicide may have common roots,” said the study’s author, David A. Brent, a psychiatrist and chair of suicide studies at the University of Pittsburgh.
There is, however, cause for hope. Whatever the underlying cause, adolescent depression and anxiety can be treated successfully, and a greater awareness of the special mental health challenges related to the opioid epidemic can help ensure those who need help are getting it.
The authors of the second study, for example, urged regular mental health screenings of children dealing with opioid-related family situations. Those screenings can lead to effective treatment, either through primary care providers, schools, group visits or same-day psychiatrist appointments.
“It’s really a matter of having the will to do it,” Brent told the Globe. “We have the methods. There are interventions out there that work, but people aren’t getting them.”
That has to change.
In the event of emergency, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The lifeline can be reached at (800) 273-TALK (8255).