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Silent Epidemic: Over 320,000 Children in U.S. Lost Parent to Drug Overdose in 10-Year Period: Study

Silent Epidemic: Rise of Children Left Behind by Parental Drug Overdose
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The number of kids losing parents to drug overdose has been on the rise, officials said.

May 13 2024, Updated 9:40 a.m. ET

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An estimated 321,566 U.S. children lost a parent to drug overdose from 2011 to 2021, with the rate more than doubling over that period, according to a new study.

From 2011 to 2021, 649,599 people ages 18 to 64 died from a drug overdose in the U.S. Prior to the newly published study, no national study had estimated the number of children who lost parents to drug overdose. The rate of children who lost parents to drug overdose more than doubled from approximately 27 per 100,000 at the start of the study period to approximately 63 per 100,000 by the end.

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The study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, was led by researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“It is devastating to see that almost half of the people who died of a drug overdose had a child. No family should lose their loved one to an overdose, and each of these deaths represents a tragic loss that could have been prevented,” NIDA Director Nora Volkow, M.D., said in a statement. “These findings emphasize the need to better support parents in accessing prevention, treatment and recovery services. In addition, any child who loses a parent to overdose must receive the care and support they need to navigate this painful and traumatic experience.”

While the highest number of affected children were those with non-Hispanic white parents, tribal communities and communities of color were affected at disproportionate rates.

Children with non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native parents consistently experienced the highest rate of loss of a parent from overdose throughout the study period, with 187 per 100,000 children affected in this group in 2021. That rate was more than double that of non-Hispanic white children (76.5 per 100,000) and among non-Hispanic Black children (73 per 100,000).

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While rates rose among children across all racial groups during the study period, rates rose fastest for children with young non-Hispanic Black parents aged 18 to 25, increasing roughly 24% each year.

Overall, children lost more fathers than mothers over the study period, with 192,459 children losing a father and 129,107 losing a mother.

“This first-of-its-kind study allows us to better understand the tragic magnitude of the overdose crisis and the reverberations it has among children and families,” said Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon, Ph.D., HHS Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use and the leader of SAMHSA. “These data illustrate that not only are communities of color experiencing overdose death disparities, but also underscore the need for responses to the overdose crisis moving forward to comprehensively address the needs of individuals, families and communities.”

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The researchers say the findings highlight the need for "whole-person health care that treats a person with substance use disorder as a parent or family member first and foremost." They say prevention resources should support families to "break generational cycles of substance use," and that prevention, treatment, recovery, and harm reduction services should be culturally informed.

“Children who lose a parent to overdose not only feel personal grief but also may experience ripple effects, such as further family instability," said Allison Arwady, M.D., M.P.H., director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “We need to ensure that families have the resources and support to prevent an overdose from happening in the first place and manage such a traumatic event.”

TMX contributed to this report.

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