Over the years, it’s become expected and almost acceptable for teens and young adults to experiment with substance abuse. In fact, studies estimate that approximately 70 percent of American young adults — a demographic group consisting of individuals in the 18-to-25 age range — drink alcohol in any amount1 while more than half of those individuals are actually binge drinking.2 Perhaps the most telling statistic is that more than 21 percent of young adults use illicit drugs.3 With so many young adults drinking alcohol and using drugs, it follows that this demographic group would be at especially high risk for chemical dependency.21 percent of young adults use illicit drugs

In the United States, it’s estimated that approximately one in ten Americans over the age of 12 has a substance abuse problem. However, looking only at American young adults, that figure increases substantially to over 14 percent.4 And while 11 percent of all American addicts are seeking or receiving treatment,5 that number is less than 8 percent among young adults.6 In other words, the frequency of addiction among young adults is far greater than in the general population, but the percentage of young adults seeking or receiving the treatment they need is substantially smaller. Why?

One of the most compelling explanations for this phenomena is the addiction stigma.

Peer Influence and Social Stigma

As many of us have surely witnessed, young adults tend to behave much differently than adults. This is largely the manifestation of some important differences in young adults’ perspectives. In particular, studies have shown that young adults’ perspectives are frequently and very strongly influenced by their peers, especially when compared to the perspectives of adults aged 26 and older.7 Moreover, young adults often view dangerous behaviors as being less risky than both older and younger demographic groups.

During a person’s teenage years, he or she learns to build and maintain relationships, which equates to accepting and being accepted by others. Consequently, peer acceptance becomes a major determinant when it comes to decision-making. There’s simultaneously a strong desire to be liked by others and an increase in sensitivity to negative feedback and peer rejection,8 which lessens only as a young adult advances into mature adulthood.

Why Do Young People Use Intoxicants?

The main reason that young people start abusing mind-altering substances is because they think it will make them look more like adults. Looking back on childhood and adolescence, most individuals grow up watching adults smoke and drink and seeing images of people smoking and drinking in the media. Eventually, these activities become associated with adulthood, maturity and authority, leading youths to mimic this behavior in an effort to artificially earn acceptance, respect and admiration. This effect is most pronounced among college students, who exhibit even higher rates of substance abuse than their non-college-going peers.

Addiction Treatment as Admission of Weakness

Obviously, substance abuse has become normal — almost even expected — among young adults, which has led to high rates of addiction. Unfortunately, there’s a very small number of addicted young adults seeking treatment. With many of their peers enjoying alcohol and recreational drugs, most young adults don’t want to admit to developing an addiction because it feels like an admission of weakness or inferiority. When all of one’s peers have been abusing mind-altering substances but don’t appear to have become addicted, there’s immense fear of judgment and rejection.

There are other concerns, too. For those in college, there’s the fear that one’s addiction will cause him or her to be kicked out of college. Similarly, those who are still living at home will likely worry that their parents will kick them out, leaving them to figure things out on their own. Unfortunately, it’s concerns like these that have led to so few young adults getting treatment for addiction.

Despite its prevalence, the addiction stigma can be overcome. Most addicts try to keep their problems hidden from family members and friends, but oftentimes loved ones are at least somewhat aware that there’s something wrong. In such instances, it would be beneficial to let the addict know that he or she can ask for help without being ejected from home or socially ostracized. In fact, most of a young adult’s concerns will likely relate to the loss of important relationships and being rejected by peers. Therefore, a big part of breaking through the social stigma occurs when the young adult is assured that admitting an addiction will be met with concern and acceptance rather than judgment or rejection.


1. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa68/aa68.htm
2. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUHresults2012/NSDUHresults2012.pdf
3. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUHresultsPDFWHTML2013/Web/NSDUHresults2013.htm
4. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUHresults2012/NSDUHresults2012.pdf
5. http://www.drugfree.org/new-data-show-millions-of-americans-with-alcohol-and-drug-addiction-could-benefit-from-health-care-r/
6. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_2716/ShortReport-2716.html
7. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/ulterior-motives/201505/social-influence-about-risk-differs-teens-and-adults
8. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956797615569578

Written by Dane O’Leary