More than 321,000 children lost a parent to overdose from 2011 to 2021: Study

May 8, 2024

A new study estimates than more than 321,000 children lost a parent to drug overdose between 2011 and 2021 with the rate of deaths more than doubling in that time frame.

The study published in the JAMA Psychiatry medical journal found that an estimated 321,566 children lost a parent to drug overdoses in the decade following 2011. Overall, 649,599 adults aged 18 to 64 were found to have died from overdoses in that period. Two-thirds of all deaths in the study were among men.

Data was sourced from the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health.

Among every 100,000 children, the rate of those who lost a parent to overdose went from 27 per 100,000 to 62.1 by 2021.

Though the children of non-Hispanic white parents represented the largest group in the study, the children of non-Hispanic, American Indian or Alaska Native individuals experienced the highest rate of loss at 187.1 per 100,000. 

“Our findings highlight an additional dimension of the worsening overdose disparities seen among minoritized racial and ethnic groups, in particular among tribal populations,” researchers wrote in the study.

Across all parental age, sex, race and ethnicity groups, the rates of parental loss consistently increased each year.

The researchers acknowledged several limitations in the study, including the absence of people who are incarcerated, in institutional settings, or homeless among the populations that were observed.

They advised that a parent-focused approach to harm reduction, treatment and recovery services be adopted to combat this specific trend. The researchers advised measures like peer-to-peer parenting training be considered.

“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 Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“These findings emphasize the need to better support parents in accessing prevention, treatment, and recovery services,” she added. “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.”