This Study Reveals the Shocking Connection Between Opioids and Teen Suicide

It’s no secret that the recent opioid epidemic is creating all sorts of problems. But you might not know about the particular demographic it is having a major effect on — teenagers. As a Chinese study reveals, misuse of opioid painkillers is more closely connected with the intentional deaths of young adults than many people might expect.

It is, however, a deadly trend that can be stopped. But first, it is important to understand how opioid use and teen suicide are connected.

Why is opioid abuse so common?

Bottle of oxycodone spilling onto a table.

Why are so many stories about opioids also about addiction? | John Moore/Getty Images

You’ve surely noticed that most of the news surrounding opioids involves misuse. There are more tales of addiction, overdose, and violent mood swings than there are about these heavily-addictive drugs actually helping to relieve pain. That is largely because there isn’t a lot of evidence to show that opioid painkillers are an effective form of long-term pain relief in the first place.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is little evidence to support that long-term opioid therapy has a positive impact on chronic pain. So continuing to take opioids for any long stretch of time only makes you more dependent. It’s no wonder these drugs are so often misused. Especially among teens …

Teen suicide itself is on the rise

despaired woman sitting curled up in nature

Opioid use isn’t the only thing on the rise these days, unfortunately. | iStock.com/AkilinaWinner

A U.S. News report revealed that teen suicide in general is the highest it’s ever been in 40 years, especially for girls. The report on findings from the CDC states that there was a spike in instances of teenage suicide between 2007 and 2015. While there was an increased number of suicides for boys, the increase was greatest for teen girls ages 15–19.

While many factors come into play when discussing this increase — bad economy, lack of support, bullying — substance misuse is one of the biggest factors. Enter, opioid misuse among teens.

Is easy access to opioids to blame?

medicine cabinet

There are probably opioids in your medicine cabinet right now. | MargotCavin/Getty Images

The recreational use of opioid painkillers has increased at an alarming rate, a CBS report explains. This is in part due to teens having more access to prescription pills than ever before. Julie Gaither of the Yale School of Medicine tells CBS that “rates at which narcotic painkillers have been prescribed have increased dramatically.”

That means opioids are in more households, raising the risk of more teenagers taking them for non-medical reasons. And, with more recreational use comes a higher chance of suffering the mind-altering effects that can lead to suicidal thoughts.

The study

Bunch of oxycodone lying on a black surface.

The study found a link between suicidal thoughts and opioid use. | John Moore/Getty Images

For the study conducted by Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China, 3,273 students from a random sampling of schools and backgrounds were observed. (The purpose of the study was to determine if surveillance systems should be installed to help lessen the instances of teen suicide attempts.) The students were observed for a year, then observed at a check-up point one year later.

The study found that the teens with a history of taking opioids experienced depression and mood swings. Furthermore, it was found that baseline opioid misuse was associated with suicidal thoughts among the study subjects.

The effects lasted post-study

Man resting his head in his arms next to a pile of pill bottles.

The effects of opioid misuse are long-lasting. | John Moore/Getty Images

Reuters Health reported on the Sun Yat-sen study in August of 2016. They added that participants in the study who reported having suicidal thoughts during the study continued having these thoughts at the one-year check-up point.

Dr. Bernard Bierman of the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor — who wasn’t directly involved in the study — told Reuters via phone interview that any teen with a higher instance of drug misuse is more likely to continue having negative thoughts, and continue taking the drugs as a form of “self-medicating.”

Connecting opioids, suicide, and pop culture

Hannah stands in front of a row of school lockers in 13 Reasons Why

The show 13 Reasons Why has been accused of sensationalizing teen suicide. | Netflix

TV and social media play a roll in both the rise of opioid misuse and teen suicide. On one hand, television and internet can help educate the public about the dangers of opioid-related overdose and death. But the over-exposure that the opioid epidemic has gotten can also desensitize teenagers, making them think it isn’t a big deal.

A lack of caring does not mix well with the sensationalized way suicide is being portrayed on TV. These two things together have a negative impact on teenagers’ chances of taking opioids for non-medical reasons and putting their mental state at risk.

There is a way to help

White pills spread out on a table,blurry front and back.

Your efforts can help break the link between opioids and teen suicide. | iStock.com

As terrifying as opioid-induced suicide is, there is a way to combat it. Taking action is the best way to break the link between opioid misuse and teen suicide. Parents and teachers should take extra note of erratic teenage moods and behaviors. (Remember, over-exposure to opioids causes changes in mood and even depression, which can lead to suicidal thoughts.)

If there are painkillers in the house, it is recommended to keep them hidden or pour out unused pills. Keeping opioids out of teens’ hands is the first step in combating opioid misuse and its link to teen suicide.