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Study links rise in child suicides to post-OxyContin opioid crisis

Nearly half of an unprecedented rise in child suicides are attributable to family problems caused by a surge in illegal opioid use after OxyContin was reformulated in 2010, researchers said Monday. File Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture
Nearly half of an unprecedented rise in child suicides are attributable to family problems caused by a surge in illegal opioid use after OxyContin was reformulated in 2010, researchers said Monday. File Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture

Dec. 4 (UPI) -- Child suicides rose fastest in parts of the country where the use of illicit opioids such as heroin boomed following the reformulation of OxyContin in 2010, according to a study published Monday.

The highest rate of suicides among youngsters in the decade after 2010 corresponded geographically to states where misuse of prescription OxyContin was most acute and users subsequently turned to illicit drugs as a substitute, the authors of a study by the Rand Corp. found.

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Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, reformulated the drug in 2010 in an effort to reduce its potential for abuse. The changes made it harder to crush the pills in order to inject or snort the drug.

However, the change unintentionally led to large-scale substitution with more dangerous opioids, including illegal heroin and fentanyl. By 2017, opioid-related deaths in the United States had more than doubled to 47,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Now, Rand Corp. researchers have also tied higher levels of child suicide to the phenomenon due to increased rates of child neglect and altered household living arrangements.

"While the use of illicit opioids did not increase among children, it appears they were negatively affected by the broader effects of the illicit opioid crisis," said lead author David Powell said in a statement. "Areas more impacted by the transition to illicit opioids due to higher rates of previous OxyContin misuse showed sharper growth in child suicide rates."

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The trend reversed declining levels of child suicide rates stretching over a period of decades. Between 2011 to 2018, suicides among children aged 10 to 17 shot up by "unprecedented" levels, becoming the second-leading cause of death for the age group by 2020.

While the causes of the surge remain largely undetermined, the Rand researchers found a distinct geographic correlation with places with the highest upticks in illicit opioid use following OxyContin's reformulation. The states where illicit opioid use was more prevalent consistently showing growth in the number of child suicides, they found.

"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.

Extrapolating from the results, the authors estimated that nearly half of the rise in child suicides after 2010 can be attributable to the reformulation of OxyContin, disproportionately affecting white, Asian American and Pacific Islander children.

If you or someone you know is suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988.

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