What could be behind the rise in youth overdoses across DC region?

Welcome to the School Zone, WTOP’s weekly feature about the latest topics and trends in education across the D.C. region.

What may be driving a rise in youth overdoses?

What it is: Several weeks ago, dozens of community members in Arlington, Virginia, rallied outside Wakefield High School, after a student died following an apparent overdose.

Before that, in January, Montgomery County Public School leaders sounded the alarm in response to a rise in youth overdoses.

Officials across the D.C. region say the area falls in line with a national trend: While overdoses overall are down, youth opioid use and overdoses are up.

What it means: Dr. Sulman Aziz Mirza, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Inova Kellar Center, told me the pandemic is a factor in the rise of youth overdoses.

The transition back to school was difficult for many students, he said, and some students lost family members to COVID-19.

“When they went on to that next grade, they were expected to be as if everything was fine,” Mirza said. “And they really couldn’t cope with that.”

Many people aren’t testing the drugs they buy, he said, noting there isn’t a quality control mechanism in the illicit substance market.

“When you go to McDonald’s in California, and you’re going to McDonald’s over in Virginia over here, you’re getting the same thing. When we’re buying stuff illicitly, we can’t have that guarantee,” he said.

Regional snapshot:

In Northern Virginia, there were 13 deadly opioid overdoses involving people 18 and younger in 2022, according to preliminary data from the state’s department of health.

Northern Virginia deadly overdoses among people 0-18 years old. (Courtesy Virginia Department of Health)

The 2022 data is not yet complete, and is only tallied through September. It includes Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax City, Fairfax County, Loudoun and Prince William counties.

There were 289 emergency department visits for “unintentional opioid or unspecified overdose” among people 18 and younger last year, up from 186 in 2021, according to state data obtained by WTOP.

Northern Virginia ED data for youth opioid overdoses. (Courtesy Virginia Department of Health)

The trend remains the same in each of those jurisdictions.

In 2021, Fairfax County reported six opioid overdoses involving juveniles, one of which was deadly. Last year, according to police, there were 36 non-deadly overdoses involving juveniles and four deadly youth opioid overdoses.

The county has a detailed opioid plan for fiscal 2023 through 2025.

As of earlier this month, there have been four juvenile overdoses in Arlington this year. In 2022, there were eight, according to police data obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request.

A Montgomery County Public Schools spokesperson told me that as of Jan. 24, Narcan had been administered 11 times since the first day of school, up from six weeks prior, when it had been administered four times.

Talking points: Regarding opioid use particularly, Mirza said there are many resources available for anyone seeking them.

“If you ever go to a doctor or therapist or counselor, anybody in a position of power or potential to help, and you ask them about something to do with substances, they are not allowed to tell your parents about it,” he said.

School counselors could be good resources, Mirza said, also pointing to the American Association of Addiction Medicine’s online resources.

“With so many of these substances, there is a treatment for things like alcohol, things like opioids. There’s a way that we can help out with these things,” he said.

By the numbers
Some data that caught my eye this week.

Arlington raises: Arlington Public Schools Superintendent Francisco Duran introduced his proposed budget Thursday night. The $803 million budget includes a 3% cost-of-living raise for all employees.

What Scott’s Reading

  • U.S. has a teacher shortage. HBCUs are helping to change that [WTOP]
  • 9 more antisemitic acts reported at Montgomery Co. schools [WTOP]
  • Some Fairfax Co. board members call for quick review of AP African American Studies course [WTOP]
  • No English or history majors? Marymount U. weighs cuts in humanities. [Washington Post]
  • Three Arlington School Board candidates are vying for support of local Democrats this May [ArlNow]
  • Maryland Republicans push for passage of expanded school voucher programs [Maryland Matters]

Field Trip
Here’s a fun thought ahead of the weekend.

Heading south: A long weekend in South Florida awaits. A stop at Saturday’s Miami basketball game is on tap.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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