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The age group staring at 18 and extending into the mid to late 20s is typically the age group to use the most substances, like alcohol, Cocaine, and Marijuana. Being a young adult is a part of life that presents unique challenges. This is often the period of life where people move away from their parents, begin college, enlist in the military, start a career, or start their own family. While everyone has their own path, it is undeniable that young adulthood is a time of transition and sometimes stress. While some people start experimenting with drugs and alcohol in their youth and some hold off until they’re older, many begin at this age. This can be due to a desire to experiment, community or environmental pressures, or mental health conditions.
Young adults have some of the highest rates of alcohol and substance misuse, according to a survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). In 2018, about 35% of people aged 18 to 25 binge drank, meaning women had 4 or more drinks and men had 5 or more drinks in a 2 hour period. An estimated 25% of people aged 26 and older binge drank, and 4.7% of people aged 12 to 17 were binge drinkers. People aged 18 to 25 comprise the largest percentage of cigarette smokers, with one-fifth of them reporting smoking cigarettes within the month before the survey. The use of e-cigarettes has been increasing, with about 13% of young adults using them in 2014 and 23% using e-cigarettes in 2016.
Not only do young adults have higher rates of alcohol, cigarette, and e-cigarette use, they are also more likely than other age groups to use illicit substances. The 2019 Monitoring the Future National Survey examined college students and people from age 19 to 60 to determine drug use trends. The use of illicit drugs, including Marijuana, Amphetamines, Cocaine, Hallucinogens, and MDMA, is highest among people in their early 20s. Marijuana use is highest specifically within the ages of 21 and 22. Young people who were not in college had a much higher prevalence of near-daily Marijuana use than people who were college students. Noncollege youth have higher rates of use of almost all illicit substances when compared to college students. Noncollege youth use more LSD, MDMA, and Cocaine, but college students are more likely to use Amphetamines like Adderall.
Some groups of young adults are more likely to misuse substances than others. For example, among 19 to 30-year-olds, men had higher rates of use of most substances than women. One study found that women who expressed sexual minority status, meaning that they did not identify as heterosexual, were at a higher risk of developing alcohol, drug, or tobacco abuse and dependence than their heterosexual peers.
Research has shown that the use of some drugs among young people is increasing. “Marijuana use among young adults (ages 19-28) increased to all-time highs in 2019,” according to the 2019 Monitoring the Future National Survey. It was also discovered that there has been an increase in the prevalence of LSD, Cocaine, and Hallucinogens. This may be due to the evolution of the perceived risk of certain drugs. The perceived risk of LSD and MDMA has declined among adults, but the perceived risk of Heroin and Narcotics has increased. To understand how to help young people with a drug or alcohol addiction, it is important to understand the reasons why people start misusing substances in the first place.
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The part of the brain that includes the reward center develops in adolescents before the part of the brain that controls decision-making, processing, natural inhibitions, and cognitive flexibility; this part is called the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe does not fully develop until a person’s mid-20s, leading some researchers to correlate this delayed maturation with young people’s tendency to make unreliable judgments and take the risk of misusing substances.
A person’s community, family, friendships, environment, and individual motives can also be factors in explaining substance misuse. For some, experimenting with drugs and alcohol before beginning adulthood is seen as a part of identity exploration. For others, drugs may be used as a way to fit in with peers. If the friends a young person surrounds themselves with all use alcohol, it is more likely that person will use alcohol themselves. In some cases, the individual may not actually enjoy misusing substances but feel that they will be ostracized from the group if they choose to not partake. Others may use drugs and alcohol to self-medicate if they have physical pain or mental health issues like depression and anxiety.
According to SAMHSA, 8.9 million young adults reported having a mental illness in 2018. Of those, 2 out of 5 went without treatment. Half of people who experience mental illness will also struggle with a substance use disorder (SUD). The National Institute on Drug Abuse has stated that “over 60% of adolescents in community-based [SUD] treatment programs also meet diagnostic criteria for another mental illness.” People who use drugs during early adolescence are more likely to develop SUDs and face that challenge throughout their lives. That is why it is important to identify young adults with an SUD as soon as possible and provide them with treatment options tailored to their individual needs.
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Treatment is not only for young people with a full-blown addiction; drug abuse intervention at an early age can be beneficial for a young person experimenting with drugs. There are many options to explore for treatment. For example, outpatient treatment should be considered for someone with a milder addiction who still needs to attend classes or work to provide for their family. For those with a severe addiction, inpatient treatment will allow for a full focus on treatment.
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Young adult inpatient rehab can offer specialized counseling and types of therapies that are targeted toward the needs of a young person. Young adult inpatient rehab, sober living homes, and support groups will offer young people a community of sober peers that they can begin to form bonds with. This stage in life can often be predictive of how the rest of someone’s future will develop, making it extremely crucial to actively pursue recovery and create a plan to achieve goals.
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Last Edited: October 22, 2021
Hayley Hudson
Hayley Hudson is the Digital Media Manager at Addiction Center. She earned a B.A. in Communications from the University of Central Florida and has 6 years of professional writing experience. A passion for writing led her to a career in journalism, and she worked as a news reporter for 3 years, focusing on stories in the healthcare and wellness industry. Knowledge in healthcare led to an interest in drug and alcohol abuse, and she realized how many people are touched by addiction.
Clinically Reviewed: May 6, 2021
David Hampton
All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.
David embarked on his journey into sobriety in June of 2005, which led him to his current career path as a Certified Professional Addiction Recovery Coach in private practice in Greater Nashville. David is also a public speaker and the author of two books. David is cohost of the weekly Positive Sobriety Podcast, as well as being a frequent contributor to various articles and recovery based materials. As a member of the National Association of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors (NAADAC), David works closely with Nashville area treatment centers, nonprofit recovery organizations, and consulting with faith-based groups trying to bridge the gap between the recovery communities and faith-based organizations who wish to understand addiction.
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