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The Teenage Fentanyl Use Crisis

Photo by Colin Davis on Unsplash

Last updated on November 22, 2023

“People need to understand that this can happen to your family. If you haven’t been impacted yet, it’s just a matter of time”, said Amy Neville, a mother whose 14-year-old son died of fentanyl consumption. Fentanyl is a potent synthetic drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Approximately 100 times stronger than morphine, fentanyl is used to treat patients in severe pain, such as after an operation or those with chronic pain. Because of the power of fentanyl, it should only be handled by medical professionals and injected in small doses. However, in recent years, fentanyl has been abused by drug dealers, as they mix it with other drugs such as heroin or cocaine and advertise it as medication. As this counterfeit medication can be on the market for a low price, people take this drug in hopes of relieving their physical or mental pain without knowing its contents, leading to a possible overdose. Adolescents looking to fentanyl as a source of medication for mental health have serious negative consequences and should be prevented by providing more access to mental healthcare services.

As seen through research, the use of fentanyl unknowingly leads to an overdose and, as a result, death, and has become more common in recent years. A Los Angeles Times article cites a Journal of the American Medical Association research letter, “Teen fentanyl deaths more than doubled, from 253 in 2019 to 680 in 2020, the report showed. Last year, the number jumped to 884. And fentanyl was the cause of 77.14% of drug deaths among teenagers last year.” There were already a shocking number of teenage fentanyl deaths. However, for the numbers to double and only increase continuously with time is devastating. Since fentanyl was the reason for 77.14% of teenage drug deaths, the increasing number of adolescent deaths is a matter to be taken seriously. It should be viewed as a significant issue. A contributing reason to adolescents intaking fentanyl unknowingly is the creation of “rainbow” pills, in which the Los Angeles Times article cites the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, “The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has warned about the existence of brightly colored, “rainbow” fentanyl pills, made to look like candy, that also could be used to target young people.” Similar to flavored vape intended to attract a teenage audience, these colorful fentanyl pills act the same way by driving addiction amongst teens with the bright-colored pills that come in various shapes and sizes. By creating fentanyl pills to resemble candy, the age range fentanyl deaths mainly take place in could decrease, as children could easily intake a pill without knowing its contents. As the number of teenage fentanyl deaths increases and drug dealers are finding new ways to market pills to attract a younger audience, there is a clear need for measures to be taken to prevent the continuation of fentanyl use. 

Allowing access to mental health care for everyone, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, could play a role in putting an end to teenage fentanyl use. A report done by the Centers for Disease Control revealed that “Approximately 41% of decedents had evidence of mental health conditions or treatment.” Because almost half of the teenagers who overdose on fentanyl have had mental health issues, it is only evident that these teens should have ample access to treat their conditions. Treating underlying issues with mental health could play a role in decreasing the number of teenage fentanyl deaths. However, many teenagers don’t have access to healthcare, as seen in the Los Angeles Times article citing Jeannette Zanipatin, a California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, “…low-income Black, brown and Indigenous teens often don’t have the same access to healthcare and mental health services as other racial groups, causing them to self-medicate at higher rates.” Allowing equal health care to people no matter their background is the only right, and to violate this would be going against the “Equal Health Care for All Act” (“Text – S.3073 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Equal Health Care for All Act”) a bill passed by the Senate and House of Representatives in 2021. A right to healthcare should not be exclusive to specific people and not exclude those who genuinely need it.  Offering health care to all people could prevent teens from self-medicating and ultimately avert death. 

While implementing more healthcare services may be a solution to decreasing teenage fentanyl deaths, critics argue that there are challenges and issues with this solution. Healthcare is undoubtedly expensive, and providing quality healthcare to everyone is a considerable expense for governments. Moreover, even if mental health care services are accessible to everyone, there is no guarantee that they will be taken advantage of and that those needing help will have the will to use the services. Even so, healthcare is unquestionably a fundamental right and should be available to everyone despite the cost. It may even be found that universal healthcare could lower costs and prevent medical bankruptcy, as concluded by researchers from the Yale School of Public Health and colleagues, “…through the Medicare for All Act, we calculate that a single-payer, universal health-care system is likely to lead to a 13% savings in national health-care expenditure, equivalent to more than US $450 billion annually.” By providing universal health care, not only would lives be saved and deaths prevented, but national healthcare funding would be able to save tremendous amounts of money. This solution that benefits the people and the government economically is a favorable proposal.

Additionally, providing the choice of receiving health care should no doubt be an option first. When healthcare is available for all, it is up to the person whether they want to use the services. But until that is an option for all, not implementing universal health care out of concern that they wouldn’t be taken advantage of is irrational.

As more and more adolescents turn to fentanyl as relief for their mental health problems, the overdose death rate is only increasing. It should be stopped by providing universal access to healthcare, specifically mental health services. Research studies have proven that many who have overdosed have had a history of mental health issues, and treating underlying mental conditions could lead to a decrease in deaths. Instead of hurting the national economy, a universal healthcare system could lead to an increase in healthcare funding, and the bare minimum of providing healthcare should be an option at all times, whether people choose to take advantage of it or not. To prevent further deaths among teenagers, solutions to put an end to the growing issue of unsafe fentanyl use should be implemented immediately.

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