During a period of unique transitions and newfound independence, young adults experience struggles with substance use disorders at higher rates than other age groups. 

While many associate this time of life with college parties and a change in community, this age group sees intense levels of problematic substance use whether they’re going to college, joining the military, starting trade school or going into the workforce. So much of what they are experiencing is different. This could look like new freedoms, new environmental pressures or opportunities, new stress levels or changing mental health conditions.   

Why are young adults more likely to struggle with substance use disorders? We know the part of the brain that controls decision-making, processing and inhibitions is not fully developed until the mid-to-late twenties, leading scientists to correlate this with risky substance use patterns in young adults.   

Today’s young adults struggle with binge-drinking, as have young adults for many generations. However, the COVID-19 pandemic raised alcohol consumption among all age groups and provided greater opportunity for repetitive binge-drinking.  

Young adults previously made up the largest portion of cigarette smokers, but today this relationship to nicotine looks very different. Nicotine is more commonly consumed through e-cigarettes or vapes that were initially created to help cigarette smokers quit smoking. These e-cigarettes are typically flavored and produce a smaller amount of fragrance and smoke than traditional cigarettes. They also contain significantly more nicotine, increasing the likelihood of the user becoming nicotine dependent. 

Research has also shown that drug use among ages 19 to 28 is also reaching new highs. Prevalence of “party drugs” like cocaine, methamphetamine, MDMA and LSD. Over the past several years, perception of the risks of drug use has changed, leading populations to think some drugs are more or less dangerous than others. 

In more recent years, increase in drug use has been accompanied with drug lacing, when one or more substances are discreetly added to the intended substance to provide a more intense response or high. Fentanyl is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine and can be deadly, even in very small doses, and is commonly found in laced drugs. Fentanyl was identified in 72.8% of all overdose deaths in Kentucky in 2021.

While struggles with substance use disorders are often genetic, substance use disorders also impact groups at different rates. Males aged 19 to 30 years old have the highest rates of substance use disorders among any other group. Additionally, members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially women, experience substance use disorder struggles at a higher frequency than those who identify as heterosexual.   

Substance use at an early age puts individuals at a higher risk for problematic substance use throughout their lifetime. Fortunately, there is help. UofL Health offers a voluntary inpatient medically managed withdrawal (detox) unit at UofL Health – Mary & Elizabeth Hospital, inpatient medically managed withdrawal units at UofL Health – Peace Hospital, as well intensive outpatient and partial hospitalization treatment programs at the UofL Health – Peace Hospital Adult Outpatient Center. Check out our website today for more information.

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Michael Gosser, LCSW, LCADC

Michael Gosser, LCSW, LCADC is the Director of Adult Outpatient for UofL Health – Peace Hospital, where he works as a licensed clinical social worker and a licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor. He has been working in the behavioral health field for over 25 years and at Peace Hospital since 2015.

All posts by Michael Gosser, LCSW, LCADC
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