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Nearly 100,000 children in the US lost a parent to a drug overdose or gun violence in 2020, study finds

<i>Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Each vase of flowers in the Gun Violence Memorial that was set up on the National Mall in 2022 represented one of the 45
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Each vase of flowers in the Gun Violence Memorial that was set up on the National Mall in 2022 represented one of the 45

By Deidre McPhillips, CNN

(CNN) — Deaths from drug overdoses and firearm-related injuries have reached record levels in the United States in recent years, and it’s created a “double burden” for children who face an increased risk of losing their parents and of dying themselves, according to the authors of a new study.

Overall, more than 1 million children have lost a parent to a fatal drug overdose or gun violence over the past two decades, according to the study, published Saturday in the medical journal JAMA – and the burden has increased significantly over time.

Nearly 100,000 children lost parents to a drug overdose or gun violence in 2020 alone – almost three times more than in 1999, the study found. These two causes of death accounted for 23% of all parental loss in 2020, nearly double the share from 1999.

Direct data on the number of children who lost a parent to death from drugs or firearms is not available, so for this study, the researchers analyzed federal mortality data, fertility data and population demographics to estimate the scale of parental death from drugs or firearms.

They found that the average age of people who died from a drug overdose or from a firearm-related injury in the US is about 42, an age at which people are likely to have young or teenage children.

Federal data shows that drug overdose deaths are most common and rising fastest among people in their mid-30s and 40s, and the new study found a significant surge in parental losses from drug overdoses. About 72,800 children lost a parent to a drug overdose in 2020, up 345% from the 16,000 children affected in 1999, according to the study.

There was a 39% increase in children who lost a parent to gun violence – from 18,000 in 1999 to 25,000 in 2020 – compared with a 24% increase in the number of children who lost parents to all other causes of death.

Other research has shown that losing a parent can have negative effects on a child’s health, education and livelihood – in both the short and long term. And losing a parent to drugs or guns can be especially hard, said Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at the Duke University School of Medicine.

It’s more socially acceptable to talk about some causes of death such as cancer, she said. Deaths involving guns or drugs are not only traumatic deaths, they’re often “said in whispers.”

“When it can’t be talked about openly and freely, it makes it harder for children to get the support they need,” said Gurwitch, who was not involved in the new study. “For children who hold those things inside, the risk of it leaking out into everything from severe behavior challenges to bereavement disorders to other types of mental health challenges – anxiety, depression or their own substance abuse – goes way up.”

Children are about three times more likely to lose a father to a drug overdose or firearm violence than they are to lose a mother, according to the new study – broadly in line with broader mortality trends for these two causes of death.

And Black youth are disproportionately affected, largely because of a disproportionate rate of firearm deaths among Black fathers.

In 2020, about 1 in every 1,000 Black children lost a parent to gun violence, compared with 1 in every 3,000 overall, according to the new study.

These “substantial” disparities in the burden of experiencing the death of a parent result in “disadvantages in health over the life course and contributing to cumulative racial disadvantage,” the study authors wrote. “Efforts to stem this problem should prioritize averting drug overdoses and firearm violence, especially among structurally marginalized groups.”

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Article Topic Follows: Health

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