Adolescents with mental illness, substance abuse stories at risk of opioid abuse

HERSHEY, Pa. – Opioid abuse is a devastating problem in the United States and a leading cause of death among teens and young adults. Penn State College of Medicine Researchers found that young people with certain mental illnesses and stories of substance abuse may be at increased risk of being diagnosed with an opioid use disorder (OUD) in a national survey. Based on these findings, researchers emphasize the importance of early intervention and educating young people about the dangers of opioid abuse.

The investigators analyzed data from 4,926 privately insured patients, 12 to 25 years old, who were clinically diagnosed with an OUD or opioid poisoning in 2017. They found that in the two years leading up to their diagnosis, the majority of patients (60 , 6%)) received medical treatment for a mental illness, such as anxiety or depression, or a substance abuse disorder (SUD) involving alcohol, tobacco or cannabis. According to the researchers, women were more likely than men to receive mental health care.

As many patients were treated for non-opioid-related health problems prior to their OUD diagnosis, the researchers said there are opportunities for health professionals to screen, intervene, and educate patients about opioids and opioid poisoning.

“Our results highlight how often mental disorders and other SUDs were identified prior to an OUD or opioid poisoning diagnosis,” said co-author Edeanya Agbese, research project manager at the Department of Public Health Sciences and the Center for Applied Studies in Health Economics. “Taking advantage of these opportunities to intervene and develop more effective screening tools can reduce the chances of future opioid abuse among young people.”

“Given that many adults with a substance abuse problem first report using drugs in their teens, early intervention can have a significant impact on the opioid epidemic,” said the co-author. Douglas Leslie, Professor of Public Health Sciences and Director of Center for Applied Studies in Health Economics.

The researchers said physicians could screen for risk behaviors and implement prevention and intervention strategies early on by targeting adolescents, young adults, and their families. According to the researchers, it may also be beneficial for healthcare providers to discuss treatment options with families and increase access to naloxone, a drug used in emergencies to treat patients who overdose on opioids.

Bradley Stein and Andrew Dick of RAND Corporation; Benjamin Druss of Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University; and Rosalie Pacula of the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at the University of Southern California contributed to this research.

This research was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (grant R01DA047396). Penn State researchers reveal no relevant conflicts of interest.

Read the entire study in the Journal of Addition Medicine.

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