Opioid use disorder is a growing concern in the United States, especially for teens and young adults. New research indicates that a history of substance use and mental health concerns may increase the risk for opioid misuse in young people. These findings also prove that education about the warning signs for these conditions can help reduce the risk for future opioid misuse.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are a type of drug that includes heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and prescription pain medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.
Heroin is an illegal opioid derived from morphine, a substance found in opium poppy plants, and can come in the form of a white or brown powder or a black sticky substance. People typically inject, snort, or smoke it and it is highly addictive, involving a great risk for overdose and death.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid similar to morphine, but with a potency that is 50 to 100 times greater. Doctors often prescribe the drug for medical purposes such as pain relief, but people also make and distribute it illegally. Synthetic opioids, including illicit fentanyl, are responsible for a growing portion of opioid overdose incidents. As of 2020, synthetic opioids were involved in more than 60% of opioid overdose deaths.
Other opioids that someone might obtain from a doctor include hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), oxymorphone, morphine, and codeine. Someone might be prescribed opioids to treat severe pain, especially after a surgical procedure. However, like other opioids, these drugs are highly addictive and can be misused if someone takes them in a way other than what is directed.
Opioid Misuse Risk Factors in Young People
A study of 4,926 patients ages 12 to 25 who had an opioid use disorder found that in the two years before their diagnosis, 60% had received medical care for a different mental health disorder. This included depression, anxiety, or another substance use disorder involving alcohol, tobacco, or cannabis.
It’s not uncommon for mental health disorders and substance use disorders to occur together. However, finding that non-opioid-related behavioral health concerns were detectable prior to an opioid use disorder can give important insight into the risk factors of youth.
“Given that many adults with a substance use problem report first using substances in adolescence, early intervention could have a significant impact on the opioid epidemic,” said the study’s co-author, Douglas Leslie.
Another risk factor in developing an opioid use disorder is gender. According to the study, female participants were more likely to receive mental health treatment than males. A lack of treatment might contribute to men being more likely to suffer from opioid use disorder and opioid overdoses.
A young person’s access to opioids can also affect their risk for opioid misuse. Those who are prescribed opioids or who are living with someone who is prescribed opioids may be more likely to misuse them. In addition, teens who have chronic pain or other physical health conditions that may require prescription opioids could be at a greater risk.
Early Warning Signs of Behavioral Health Disorders
Knowing the first signs of a mental health or substance use disorder can help ensure that young people receive the treatment they need early on, potentially reducing their risk for future opioid use.
Some common signs of a mental health disorder include:
- Changes in eating habits
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Intense mood swings
- Loss of interest in once enjoyable activities
- Talking about harming oneself
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Feeling numb
- Excessive anger
- Prolonged sadness
Signs that someone might be struggling with a substance use disorder include:
- Physical changes like weight loss
- Shaking or trembling
- Watery eyes
- Abandoning long-term friends
- Missing school or work
- Frequently asking for money or stealing money
How to Prevent Opioid Use Disorder in Young People
Although early intervention may help reduce a young person’s risk for developing an opioid use disorder, it’s still important to know the signs of opioid misuse. Someone who is misusing prescription opioids might frequently “lose” their prescription and need a refill or seek the same prescription from multiple doctors. They may regularly use their prescription in a way that their doctor does not direct or use opioids from someone else’s prescription.
One way to help prevent opioid use disorders in adolescents and teens is to take extra caution with prescription opioid medication. Teens who are prescribed opioids for pain relief after a procedure should be monitored to ensure that they are taking it as directed, and for as little time as possible.
Reducing a young person’s risk for prescription opioid misuse may also reduce their risk for future heroin use. According to data from 2002 to 2012, initial heroin use was 19 times higher among those who previously misused pain medication. Additionally, the studies showed that in the 2010s, over 60% of heroin users reported using prescription opioids first.
It isn’t easy to accept that you or someone you love is struggling with opioid use. However, knowing the warning signs and being aware of potential risk factors can help initiate early intervention, helping to reduce how many lives are lost to opioid use disorder.