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

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Each vase of flowers at the Gun Violence Memorial, installed on the National Mall in 2022, represented one of the 45,222 Americans who died from gun violence in 2020.


Deaths from drug overdoses and gun-related injuries have reached record levels in the United States in recent years, creating a “double burden” for children who are at increased risk of losing their parents and die themselves, according to the study authors. a new study.

In total, more than 1 million children have lost a parent to fatal drug overdoses 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 their parents to drug overdoses or gun violence in 2020 alone – nearly three times as many as in 1999, the study found. These two causes of death accounted for 23% of all parental losses in 2020, almost double the 1999 share.

Direct data on the number of children who have lost a parent to drugs or guns is not available. For this study, researchers therefore analyzed federal mortality data, fertility data and demographic data to estimate the magnitude of parental deaths due to drugs or firearms.

They found that the average age of people who die from a drug overdose or gun-related injury in the United States is about 42, an age at which people are likely to have young children or adolescents.

Federal data shows that drug overdose deaths are most common and increasing fastest among people between the ages of 35 and 45, and the new study found a significant increase in parental losses due to drug overdoses. About 72,800 children lost a parent to drug overdose in 2020, an increase of 345% from the 16,000 children affected in 1999, according to the study.

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

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

It’s more socially acceptable to talk about certain causes of death like cancer, she said. Deaths involving guns or drugs are not only traumatic deaths, they are often “spoken in hushed tones.”

“When you can’t talk about it openly and freely, it’s harder for kids to get the support they need,” said Gurwitch, who was not involved in the new study. “For children who keep these things inside, the risk of it spilling over into everything from serious behavioral problems to grief disorders to other types of mental health problems – anxiety, depression or their own drug addiction – increases significantly.”

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According to the new study, children are about three times more likely to lose their father to a drug overdose or gun violence than to lose their mother, broadly consistent with broader mortality trends for both. causes of death.

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

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

These “substantial” disparities in the burden of experiencing the death of a parent lead to “health disadvantages across the lifespan and contribute to cumulative racial disadvantage,” the study authors write. “Efforts to stem this problem should prioritize the prevention of drug overdoses and gun violence, particularly among structurally marginalized groups. »

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