Drug Overdoses Claiming West Virginia's Youth

Nov 24, 2015

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West Virginia has the highest rate of youth drug overdose deaths in the country, according to a new national report.

The study, produced by the non-profit Trust for America’s Health, found that nationwide, youth drug overdose deaths have more than doubled among people aged 12-25.

In a third of states, among them West Virginia, rates have tripled or quadrupled. The increase in deaths is most pronounced among young adults (defined as ages 19-25).

Current rates are highest in West Virginia, at 12.56 per 100,000 youths. That's almost double the national average and about five about times higher than the lowest rate of 2.2 per 100,000, recorded in North Dakota.

“The rates in West Virginia are probably higher because there is a higher level of prescribing – greater use of opioids for pain control,” said Jeffrey Levi, executive director for the Trust for America’s Health, and one of the study’s authors.

Opioids include the painkillers oxycodone, methadone, and hydrocodone. 

In 2013, prescription painkillers were responsible for more than half of all drug overdose-related deaths, according to the report.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the overdose deaths are not just from the use of the pills, but also as people become addicted  and as the pills become too expensive people transition to heroin,” said Levi. “And the heroin that’s available now in this county at this stage in our epidemic is purer, more concentrated and therefore, more potentially dangerous.”

Levi said combating youth overdose death begins with prevention rather than intervention; more than 90 percent of adults with substance abuse disorders begin abusing before the age of 18. 

As part of the study, Levi’s team looked at ten policies that have been proven to prevent or reduce substance misuse.

Examples include programs to prevent bullying, smoking, underage alcohol sales and funding for mental health services.  

The policies were gathered into a “Substance Misuse Prevention Report Card” and each state received a grade on how many of the ten resources they provided their constituents. West Virginia’s grade was four out of ten.

“The major emphasis of the study is that there are things we can do that will prevent kids from misusing these drugs in the first place, said Levi. “And that’s so critically important for us to address as a country.”

This story was amended on 11/25/2015 to reflect the fact that West Virginia has the highest rate of youth overdose deaths in the U.S. It originally said the state has the highest number of youth overdose deaths.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.