But about a year and a half ago, the middle schooler admitted to his parents a very adult problem: he was experimenting with oxycodone, a prescription painkiller.
He had no idea that the pills he was taking were actually knock-off prescriptions containing fentanyl, a synthetic opioid. A few milligrams of fentanyl can be a lethal dose.
One morning in June 2020, his mother, Amy, finds him dead in his bedroom.
“I went to his room, and he was blue, just laying in his bean bag chair. Just like he went to bed, you know, like he fell asleep there,” he said. she says.
Drug-related deaths more than double
Although still rare, drug-related deaths among children aged 10 to 14 have more than tripled from 2019 to 2020, according to an analysis carried out for CNN by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. .
The teenage trend follows a larger trend.
Annual drug overdose deaths hit a new record high in the United States, with an estimated 104,288 deaths in the 12 months ending September 2021, according to preliminary data released Wednesday by the National Center for Health Statistics of the United States. CDC.
This is double the number six years ago; there were approximately 52,000 drug overdose deaths per year as of September 2015.
The fentanyl factor
Alexander Neville had gone to his parents for help just two days before he died. He told them that he had started the pills largely because he was curious.
“He said, ‘I have to tell you something. I wanted to experiment with oxy — oxycodone. I looked at how much to take for my height, so I wouldn’t get addicted. really took . . And I don’t know why,” her mother said.
His parents immediately phoned for treatment.
“He really wanted to quit completely,” recalls Alexander’s father, Aaron.
Amy recalled, “He wanted to get it over with. He said, ‘I’m done. I thought this stuff was going to be fun, but it’s not.'”
But Alexander took that last pill, unaware that it was actually a deadly fake.
Tests later showed the pill contained enough fentanyl to kill at least four people, according to a toxicology report obtained by his parents.
“We’re dealing with a different drug threat. Fentanyl was a game changer,” said DEA Special Agent Robert Murphy. “I’ve been in law enforcement all my adult life – so it’s been 31 years now. And I’ve never seen a drug threat like the one we’re facing now. It’s scary .”
Social networks facilitate drug trafficking
Social media can also contribute to the problem. Drug dealers no longer need to stand on street corners. They can now connect with children online through platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube, Murphy said.
Alexander’s parents believe he got his fake pills through Snapchat. Another parent in the area contacted them to tell them that her son had died two weeks after Alexander, and she had screenshots of a conversation believed to be with a drug dealer via Snapchat. There is still an ongoing investigation.
“The fentanyl epidemic has had a devastating effect on the lives of too many Americans, and our hearts go out to the families who have suffered unimaginable loss,” a Snap spokesperson said in a statement to CNN.
“We share their outrage at the way drug traffickers have abused online platforms, including Snapchat, and are working tirelessly to root them out of our platform. We use tools to proactively detect drug trafficking activity. drugs and shut down dealers.To help inform our ongoing strategy and efforts, we work closely with a wide range of counter-narcotics experts, the law enforcement community and government agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Agency, as well as with families. We are committed to using all resources to fight this national crisis both on Snapchat and across the tech industry, including raising awareness of dangers of counterfeit pills containing fentanyl.”
Buying drugs is as simple as planting a string of emojis on a social media platform to signal interest in a sale, Murphy said. The DEA says drug dealers and criminal networks are waiting for you.
Dealers can reassure people that their pills are fentanyl-free, but there’s no easy way to tell by looking at them, or how much fentanyl they contain.
“That’s why it could be a ‘one pill kill,’ because we don’t know the dose,” said Dr. Robert Bassett, associate associate director of the Poison Control Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “It’s like driving at night with the headlights off.”
The antidote to opioid overdoses
Fentanyl has become such a big problem among young people that some schools have started to keep naloxone, an antidote to opioid overdoses available under the Narcan brand, on hand.
On Tuesday, the American Medical Association urged the Biden administration to drop the prescription status of naloxone to make it more readily available over the counter.
How to get help
Although experts say there aren’t enough counselors and treatment programs for tweens and teens, there are treatment programs that work for teens.
The first step to successful treatment is recognition. Parents should remain vigilant for changes in a child’s behavior, which may be an early sign that he is using drugs.
The changes may be subtle at first, Bassett said. They may not hang out with the same friends or they may lose interest in their favorite activities. They may be angry or sleep more. But parents need to tell their kids — even middle schoolers — about it, and do it more than once.
“It’s not a ‘one talk and forget it.’ It’s something you’re going to have to hammer home every night at the kitchen table,” Murphy said.
Children’s brains are not fully formed and their risk-reward centers may not help them make the right choices all the time. “They’re the perfect, most vulnerable population,” Bassett said.
Drug treatment is considered more effective than abstinence, Bassett said. Enveloping services, individualized treatment to help the child and his family, may include peer counseling and drug addiction. And Bassette said, it can be important to address the underlying issues that lead the child to experiment with drugs in the first place.
“There may be unmet psychological conditions that compel people to self-medicate,” Bassett said. “They just try not to suffer.”