How Common is Drug Addiction Among Young Adults?

Among the positive health developments from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 is this: adolescent drug and alcohol use fell.

Results from the latest Monitoring the Future survey from the University of Michigan show that reported substance abuse among U.S. eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders decreased significantly from 2020 to 2021 — and stayed well below pre-pandemic levels again in 2022.

Positive and Negative Drug Use Trends

It’s one of the hopeful highlights of an annual report from a long-standing group that tracks a variety of issues around narcotic use. Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is part of the National Institutes of Health, researchers at Michigan conduct a youth and young adult survey annually. It’s part of Monitoring the Future, an ongoing look at values, attitudes, and behaviors of American adolescents and adults.

The bad news over the same period? Adults aged 35 to 50 kept their trend of increasing marijuana use and hallucinogens. The age group hit another record high in 2022 after five years of up-ticks.

“We are seeing that marijuana and hallucinogen use, and vaping of nicotine and marijuana, are higher than ever among young adults ages 19 to 30,” said Megan Patrick, principal investigator of the Monitoring the Future study. What’s more, she said, “Midlife adults ages 35 to 50 have the highest level of binge drinking we have ever seen in that age group.”

More states are adding medical marijuana, recreational marijuana, or both to their list of legal substances and some hallucinogens are also getting more attention from state lawmakers across the country to relax their regulation. Several initiatives are on state ballots in 2024.

Battling Fentanyl and Illicit Drug Use

With state and federal drug enforcement agencies continuing to battle a national fentanyl influx from various outside drug cartels, the need to watch and help substance abusers will only grow.

An overall snapshot of U.S. drug use frames the battle lines:

  • 22% of men and 17% of women used illegal drugs or misused prescription drugs within the last year.
  • 70% of people who experiment with an illegal drug before age 13 develop a substance abuse disorder within the next seven years compared to 27% of those who try an illegal drug after age 17.
  • 47% of young people use an illicit drug by the time they graduate from high school
  • Most U.S. drug use comes from people ages 18 to 25 (39%), followed by people ages 26 to 29 (34%).
  • The prevalence of Adderall use declined among young students has declined since 2012.

Fentanyl, however, has everyone on alert. Local law enforcement agencies nationwide have warned people who enjoy recreational drugs to be wary of their source. First responders in many communities encounter unconscious citizens who think they’re smoking pot when in fact they’re inhaling something laced with fentanyl — a potentially fatal mistake.

“The proliferation of fentanyl in the drug supply is of enormous concern,” said NIDA Director Nora Volkow M.D. “Though the data indicate that drug use is not becoming more common among young people than it has been in the past, the tragic increase in overdose deaths among this population suggest that drug use is becoming more dangerous than ever before.”

Fatal fentanyl overdoses in the United States have increased every year since 2012, topping out at 73,654 in 2022. However, the rate of increase declined to 4.3% in the past year.

Substance Use Disorder Among Young Adults

Although often the most vulnerable, America’s youth may supply the most hope for change. Comparing survey results from 2021 to 2022, the latest Monitoring the Future survey found:

  • Alcohol use was mostly static between the years. It was stable for eighth graders (15.2%) and 10th-graders (31.3%) but rose to pre-pandemic levels among 12th-graders (51.9%).
  • Cannabis use also remained stable among the three age levels, although vaping cannabis grew slightly among 10th-graders.
  • Use of e-cigarettes and nicotine vaping also stayed stable in the three grade levels at 12%, 20.5%, and 27.3%, respectively.
  • Use of drugs other than marijuana remained low and unwavering for the three grades.
  • And use of narcotics other than heroin rose to pre-pandemic levels for 12th-graders. The bulk of that drug use was opioids and other painkillers.

Hope for Many Young Adults

While there’s optimism that teenagers and young adults will carry their lowered rates of substance abuse into adulthood and middle age, healthcare providers and employers will have to confront the reality that a core component of today’s workforce needs help now. That could come in the form of better medical insurance for issues that surface, particularly in the area of substance abuse and mental health.

It could come from more cultural awareness of the prevalence of U.S. substance abuse, especially as more states legalize medical and recreational marijuana and other recreational drugs.

It could also come from the grassroots where 12-step programs grow, adding more meetings across the country and across the spectrum of addictions.

Or it could come from corporate America, which relies on either profit or community potential to build more public and private treatment centers that serve a greater good beyond making corporate investors happy they cashed in on a trend.

Solving Illicit Drug Use Disorder

The solution is most likely a combination of all of the above. Plus, addiction treatment has several modalities. Traditional treatment experts espouse a combination of behavior therapy and medications to assist with withdrawal management as the most successful, particularly for opioid addiction. Newer medications have come to U.S. market, ones that target specific substance abuse.

There’s a recognition that multiple addictions and mental health issues feed each other and that these co-occurring disorders require more attention from medical and mental health professionals.

And there’s little doubt that outside support for individuals struggling with severe addiction helps, whether it’s ongoing therapy, constant 12-step meeting attendance, living in a group-home setting, or having a job that fosters self-sufficiency and self-confidence.

Education and Substance Misuse

One key piece for youths and young adults is education. A 2013 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that 31.4% of high school dropouts use illicit drugs (compared to 18.2% of older teens who remained in school). Dropout rates were also fed by alcohol (41.6% of dropouts drank, compared to 35.3% of non-dropouts).

It’s hardly news that young people engage in experimental and sometimes-risky behaviors as they discover the world and all it offers, good and bad. The question is, how best can we foster the good and mitigate the bad?

Substance Use Treatment for Young Adults

When it comes to addressing substance abuse and mental health, there are many avenues that can lead to recovery. Sadly, many individuals who struggle with drug abuse and mental illness do not receive the help they need. According to data gathered in 2018 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, out of almost 9 million young adults who reported having a mental illness, nearly half of them did not receive treatment, and out of over 5 million with a substance use disorder, 9 out of ten did not receive treatment.

These numbers indicate a strong need for accessible and effective treatment options across all age groups, but specifically younger generations. Young adulthood is an exciting time that comes along with many changes and challenges. When challenges related to mental illness and abusing illicit substances arise, it’s important to know where to turn for help. Here are some treatment options to consider:

  • Inpatient Rehab: Oftentimes, this is the first step in someone’s recovery journey. Rehab programs provide a higher level of care and usually offer withdrawal management services to help individuals taper off substances safely and comfortably.
  • Outpatient Programs: After inpatient, it is recommended to continue treatment in an outpatient setting. This provides ongoing accountability, support, and an opportunity to further address underlying mental health conditions through therapy.
  • Sober Living: Sober living homes emphasize the importance of continuing to build a solid foundation in recovery. They can be used as a form of aftercare once rehab is completed or the initial step in sobriety. Either way, sober living provides unparalleled peer support and a sense of community which correlate to successful treatment outcomes.

Seeking Help for Drug Addiction Among Young Adults

While young adults have yet to fully develop, they are at higher risk of developing a substance use disorder. What might start out as smoking cigarettes and sneaking a few alcoholic drinks can quickly turn into experimenting with other drugs and develop into an addiction. It is a common issue that young people face as a result of certain risk factors and poor decision-making. That being said, help is available and recovery is entirely possible.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, reaching out for help can make a huge difference and potentially save a life. Don’t wait, call New Life House today to learn more about our young adult sober living in Los Angeles.


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Last Updated on February 21, 2024


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