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

Recent research published in the medical journal JAMA reveals that deaths from drug overdoses and firearm-related injuries in the United States have reached unprecedented levels, posing what the authors describe as a "double burden" for children. According to the study, over the past two decades, more than 1 million children have lost a parent to either a fatal drug overdose or gun violence, with the burden increasing significantly over time.

The study, which analyzed federal mortality data, fertility data, and population demographics, estimated that nearly 100,000 children lost parents to drug overdoses or gun violence in 2020 alone – almost three times the number recorded in 1999. These two causes of death accounted for 23% of all parental loss in 2020, nearly double the share from 1999.

While direct data on the number of children affected is not available, the researchers found that the average age of those dying from drug overdoses or firearm-related injuries in the US is approximately 42, an age at which individuals are likely to have young or teenage children.

Drug overdose deaths are most common and rising fastest among people in their mid-30s and 40s, according to federal data. The study found a significant surge in parental losses from drug overdoses, with approximately 72,800 children losing a parent to a drug overdose in 2020, marking a 345% increase from 1999.

Similarly, there was a 39% increase in children who lost a parent to gun violence, rising from 18,000 in 1999 to 25,000 in 2020, compared to a 24% increase in children who lost parents to all other causes of death.

Losing a parent can have severe and lasting negative effects on a child's health, education, and overall well-being. This impact is particularly pronounced when a parent dies from drugs or guns, according to Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at the Duke University School of Medicine.

Gurwitch emphasizes that deaths involving guns or drugs are often stigmatized and not openly discussed, making it harder for children to seek and receive the support they need. Children who internalize their grief are at increased risk of developing severe behavior challenges, bereavement disorders, anxiety, depression, or even substance abuse.

The study also revealed that children are approximately three times more likely to lose a father to a drug overdose or firearm violence than they are to lose a mother, consistent with broader mortality trends for these causes of death.

Furthermore, Black youth are disproportionately affected, primarily due to a higher rate of firearm deaths among Black fathers. In 2020, approximately 1 in every 1,000 Black children lost a parent to gun violence, compared to 1 in every 3,000 children overall.

The study authors emphasize that these substantial disparities in parental loss contribute to long-term health disadvantages and perpetuate cumulative racial disadvantage. They suggest that efforts to address this issue should prioritize preventing drug overdoses and firearm violence, particularly among structurally marginalized groups.

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