Study shows over 321,000 U.S. children have lost a parent to drugs

May 28, 2024

According to a new study carried out by the U.S. National Institute of Health, more than 321,000 U.S. children lost a parent to drug overdose over the period spanning from 2011 to 2021.

The study, published in JAMA Psychiatry, also showed that the death rate due to drug overdose more than doubled over the same time period. It is also the first national study examining the number of minors affected by the ongoing overdose crisis in the U.S. The study found that a total of 649,599 individuals aged 18 to 64 died of a drug overdose over the ten years examined and also showed that children were more likely to lose their fathers than their mothers.

“Something that’s very important about this particular dataset is that it paints the picture of people who use drugs as people who have full lives,” said Dr. Emily Einstein, the chief of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Science Policy Branch, in her interview with CBS News. “I think very often we think of people with addiction or who use drugs as that being their defining characteristic, especially when someone dies of an overdose… Nearly half of these people who die have a child who lives in their household. I think that gives us concrete data so we can start to understand the full picture of someone’s whole life and how we need to address all the factors in their life, both for their own addiction and then to mitigate the trauma experienced by children left behind.” 

Furthermore, the study also showed that the highest number of deaths was among parents aged 26 to 40 (175,355 children affected) and among non-Hispanic white parents (234,164 children affected). Children with Hispanic parents (40,062) and children with non-Hispanic Black parents (35,743) were also among the groups which were most significantly affected, and who also experienced the highest rate of loss and highest year-to-year rate increase, respectively. The authors also concluded that the racial and ethnic disparities demonstrated by the results are consistent with overall increases in drug overdose-related deaths among non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaska Native and Black Americans in recent years, demonstrating the disproportionate impact of the overdose crisis on minority communities in the U.S.

“It is devastating to see that almost half of the people who died of a drug overdose had a child. No family should lose their loved one to an overdose, and each of these deaths represents a tragic loss that could have been prevented,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA director, in a press release published by NIH. “These findings emphasize the need to better support parents in accessing prevention, treatment, and recovery services. In addition, any child who loses a parent to overdose must receive the care and support they need to navigate this painful and traumatic experience.”

In the context of these findings, the study’s researchers noted the importance of providing treatment for a person with substance use disorder as a parent or family member first and foremost, and providing prevention resources accordingly to support families and break generational cycles of substance use. The study also highlights the need to implement culturally-informed approaches in prevention, treatment, recovery, and harm reduction services, as well as to reduce the racial and ethnic inequities in access to these services.