Substance Misuse in Young Adults

Young adults, usually defined as those between the ages of 18 and 25, experience growth, transition, and identity exploration that puts them at a unique risk for substance misuse. Misuse during this vulnerable time in a person’s life can result in long-lasting consequences.1

On this page, you’ll learn about the prevalence of substance use among young adults, the effects of substance misuse during this time, and how to find substance use treatment tailored to those in this age group.

Substance Use and Young Adults

During young adulthood there tends to be an increased focus on the self, greater independence, and new possibilities. There may also be burgeoning relationships and changes in residency or employment.1

Adding to their new experiences, many young adults try substances for the first time or increase their use. As a result, this age group has some of the highest rates of alcohol and substance misuse.1

Unfortunately, young people are particularly susceptible to the damaging effects of substance misuse.1 Some effects and consequences associated with substance misuse in young adulthood may include:1

  • Increased difficulty forming healthy relationships.
  • Ongoing struggle to keep a job.
  • Increased risk of physical and sexual assault.
  • Poor school or job performance.
  • Increased risk of accident, injury, and death.
  • Chronic disease.
  • The development of substance use disorder or addiction.

Commonly Misused Substances Among Young Adults

Many different substances are used by young adults, but according to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, some of the most misused substances include:

  • Alcohol: 50% of young adults drank alcohol in the past month, 29.2% engaged in binge drinking, and 7.1% in heavy alcohol use.2
  • Marijuana: The frequency of marijuana use has increased in recent years.1 Nearly 36% of young adults used marijuana in the past year.2
  • Hallucinogens: About 7% of young adults reported past year hallucinogen or dissociative use such as LSD, PCP, ketamine, or ecstasy.2
  • Prescription stimulants: ADHD medications such as Adderall were misused by 3.7% of young adults during the past year.2
  • Cocaine: Around 3.5% of young adults reported using cocaine in the previous year.2
  • Opioids: Prescription opioids and heroin were misused by 3.1% of young adults in the past year.2

Substance Use Effects on the Developing Brain

The human brain continues developing until age 25 and, during this time, remains particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of drugs and alcohol.1

In young adulthood, drugs and alcohol can negatively influence neurological functioning in several key brain regions and signaling pathways, including the following:1

  • The basal ganglia play a large role in motivation for pleasurable activities such as eating, forming relationships, and sex. As such, this section contributes to habit and routine formation.
  • The amygdala is involved with perception and management of certain stressors, including anxiety and irritability. When a person stops using a substance after chronic use, the amygdala may contribute to an increased sense of anxiety or unease.
  • The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain responsible for making judgments, including planning, problem-solving, decision-making, and self-control. It is the last area to develop, during a person’s mid-20s.
  • The brain stem manages basic life functions such as breathing, heart rate, and sleep cycles.

Certain substance-related brain changes could potentially result in:1

  • Lower IQ.
  • Loss of motivation.
  • Higher impulsivity.
  • Reduction in attention span.
  • Addiction.

In addition to affecting the brain, substance misuse can increase the risk of:1

  • Cancers.
  • Respiratory diseases.
  • Cardiovascular diseases.
  • Liver damage.
  • Kidney problems.
  • Pregnancies with birth defects.
  • Other mental health disorders.

Addiction & Co-occurring Disorders in Young Adults

Research demonstrates a strong correlation between substance use disorders and mental health disorders.3 This co-occurrence is especially prevalent during the young adult developmental period.

In 2021, nearly 50% of young adults reported having a mental health or substance use disorder in the past year, and 13.5% reported having co-occurring disorders—the highest rate of any age group.2

Mental health and substance use disorders commonly co-occur for 3 main reasons:

  • There are common risk factors for both types of disorders. Factors that contribute to mental disorder development, such as genetics, environmental influences on genetics, development of particular brain regions, stress, and life experiences can influence substance use disorder development in the same way.3
  • Mental health disorders may encourage substance use and addiction. If a person is not treated for existing mental health disorders, they may turn to substance use in an attempt to self-medicate the mental health symptoms they are experiencing. It may help at first but ultimately it can worsen the disease, leading to unhealthy patterns of use.3
  • Substance misuse and addiction can trigger mental health issues. Brain changes from substance use may contribute to mental health disorder development in those who are susceptible.3

Due to the close relationship between mental health disorders and substance misuse, it is important to treat these co-occurring disorders at the same time.3 Careful evaluation at the beginning of treatment may lead to the identification of co-occurring disorders and the ability to appropriately treat both.3

Risk Factors for Substance Misuse in Youth

There are several particular risk factors that may contribute to substance misuse in young adults.1 These can include:4

  • Individual health and genetics.
  • Early first use of substances.
  • Rebellious tendencies.
  • Positive associations with substance use.
  • Friends or peers who engage in use.
  • Poor parental guidance and family management during childhood (such as unclear expectations, lack of supervision, or excessive punishment).
  • Family conflict, abuse, or neglect during childhood.
  • Roles models that use substances.
  • Family history of substance misuse.
  • Academic failures or devaluation of schooling and education.
  • Low cost and high availability of substances.

These risk factors tend to appear more often in particular populations, increasing their vulnerability.1 Young adults in the following population subsets may be particularly at risk of substance misuse:1

  • Identify as a sexual minority
  • Do not have homes
  • Have aged out of foster care
  • Have been involved in the juvenile justice system
  • Are in the military
  • Are in college fraternities or sororities
  • Have ADHD

Addiction Treatment Options for Young Adults

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance misuse or addiction, help is available today. Laguna Treatment, an Orange County drug detox facility in California, offers a Young Adult Program specifically designed for the needs of those between 18-26 years old.

Laguna’s licensed therapists and certified substance use counselors employ a combination of effective evidence-based addiction treatment therapies for substance misuse and co-occurring disorders.

Multiple levels of addiction treatment are available, and treatment is customized to ensure each young adult receives the right type of support for their recovery.

Was this page helpful?
Thank you for your feedback.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) is committed to delivering original, truthful, accurate, unbiased, and medically current information. We strive to create content that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

Read our full editorial policy

While we are unable to respond to your feedback directly, we'll use this information to improve our online help.

The Best Place to Recover in Orange County
We are here to help you get sober and learn how to stay that way. Laguna Treatment Center is located in Orange County within easy reach of the entire Los Angeles metro. We are the premier chemical dependency recovery hospital in the OC. We offer safe medical detox, mental health support, and wellness programs.