Substance Use in Young Adults

Chronic use of drugs and alcohol at a young age can have life-long consequences.1

This page will explore the prevalence, effects, risk factors, and treatment of substance use and addiction among young adults.

Substance Use Among Young Adults

The following statistics detail the extent and some consequences of substance use among Americans 18-25 years old in 2021:1,2

  • Around 12.7 million (38%) young adults engaged in illegal drug use in 2021, a significant increase from the 24% seen in 2018.
  • Young adults represented the age group with the highest rate of illicit drug or alcohol use disorders (the clinical terms for addiction) in the United States.
  • About 5 million (15%) had a diagnosable alcohol use disorder .2
  • Around 8.3 million (24.9%) had an illicit drug use disorder.

Commonly Misused Substances Among Young Adults

According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), some commonly used substances among adults between the ages of 18 and 25 in the United States were:2

  • Alcohol. 50.1% of young adults drank alcohol in the past month, while
  • Marijuana. 35.4% of young adults used marijuana in the past year.
  • Hallucinogens. Drugs such as LSD, PCP, peyote, ecstasy, and ketamine were used by 7.1% of young adults in the past year.
  • Prescription stimulants.2 million (3.7%) engaged in misuse of prescription stimulants (e.g., Adderall, Ritalin) in the past year.
  • Cocaine. About 1.2 million (3.5%) used cocaine in the past year.
  • Opioids. Approximately 3.1% of young adults misused prescription opioids or heroin in the past year.
  • Prescription tranquilizers or sedatives. Benzodiazepines and other tranquilizers or sedatives were misused by 2.6% in the past year.

Misconceptions about the risks associated with certain substances may contribute to how widely they are used by young people. Young adults in the United States had a lower perception of risk associated with marijuana use than other age groups and tend to be less concerned with prescription drug misuse, minimizing the danger because they have a perceived legitimate purpose.1

Effects of Substance Use on the Developing Brain

The human brain does not complete its development until the age of 25. Therefore, young people are particularly susceptible to the damaging effects of drugs and alcohol.1

Parts of the developing brain most likely to be impacted by substance use include:1

  • The prefrontal cortex. This portion of the brain powers decision-making, impulse control, planning ability, and problem-solving. It is the last area of the brain to develop.
  • The amygdala. This section is key to the perception and management of stress, anxiety, and unease.
  • The basal ganglia. This section of the brain is involved in positive motivation and habit formation. It generates positive feelings for activities such as eating, social interaction, and sex.
  • The brain stem. Essential and critical life functions such as heart rate, breathing, and sleep cycles are controlled in the brain stem.

Interrupted development in these regions of the brain can have lasting consequences, leading to lower IQ, lower motivation, reduced self-control, and shortened attention span.1

Risk Factors for Substance Use in Youth

There are many factors that increase the risk of substance use in young people.3 Factors that may contribute to substance use in young adults include:3

  • Using any substance at an early age.
  • Rebelliousness and problematic behavior.
  • Low perceptions of risk, or positive feelings toward drug and alcohol use.
  • Peer substance use.
  • Genetic susceptibility to alcohol or drug use.
  • Growing up with inconsistent boundaries, supervision, or excessively harsh punishments.
  • Abuse, neglect, or other familial conflicts.
  • Parental use or approval of drugs.
  • Family history of substance use.
  • Poor performance or lack of commitment in school.
  • Ease of access to alcohol or substances in the community.
  • Co-occurring serious mental illness.3

Attitudes, role models, and peers that support substance use in childhood, school, the workplace, and other areas of a person’s life, all put them at greater risk for substance use problems as a young adult.1

There is a greater risk for substance use among young adults who:1

  • Do not have housing.
  • Identify as LGBTQ+.
  • Are aging out of foster care.
  • Have been involved in the juvenile justice system.
  • Enlist in the military.
  • Belong to college fraternities or sororities.
  • Have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Substance Use and Co-Occurring Disorders in Young Adults

Substance use disorders (SUDs) are more common among young adults with serious mental health conditions than young adults without. In addition, mental health conditions co-occur with SUDs more frequently in young adults than in other age groups.1 In 2021, 13.5% of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 had a SUD and a mental health condition.2

There are 3 main reasons that mental illness and substance use disorders commonly co-occur:4

  • They have common risk factors. Both disorders are influenced by genetics, and life experiences such as stress or trauma can contribute to genetic changes and the development of either condition.
  • Mental health conditions can motivate substance use. People who have a mental disorder may “self-medicate” with substance use. While the symptoms may be initially alleviated, over time they get worse, which can encourage increased substance use.
  • Substance use can worsen or trigger mental health conditions. As the brain undergoes changes with chronic substance use, it may contribute to changes that increase the likelihood of developing a SUD.

When someone suffers from SUD and a co-occurring disorder, it is important to treat both conditions simultaneously to achieve long-term recovery.4

Fortunately, many behavioral therapies are efficacious for both SUDs and mental health disorders. Depending on a person’s individual treatment needs and conditions, therapy may be coupled with medication.4

Barriers to Addiction Treatment for Young Adults

Common barriers that prevent access to care for young adults may include:1

  • Fear of stigmatization.
  • Lack of trust or limited confidentiality.
  • Trouble recognizing symptoms.
  • Concern over aspects of the health provider.
  • The desire for self-reliance.
  • Minimal knowledge about mental health services.
  • Anxiety or stress around the process of getting help.
  • Cost of treatment.2

Unfortunately, each of these barriers tends to increase the likelihood of experiencing other barriers.1

Addiction Treatment Options for Young Adults

If you or a loved one are experiencing the hardship of a substance use disorder, help is available. Greenhouse Treatment Center is a drug and alcohol rehab near Dallas that offers several types of rehab care, including:

Admission navigators are available 24/7 to answer any questions you may have about the various levels of addiction treatment, how to use insurance to pay for rehab, and other ways to pay for treatment. Start the admissions process today by calling . There is hope for life after substance use.

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