Youth transitioning into adulthood have some of the highest rates of alcohol and substance misuse in America. An estimated 35% of young adults ages 18 – 25 have been binge drinkers (five or more drinks on a single occasion) in the past month. As compared to young adults, only 4.7% of 12 -17- year-olds are involved in binge drinking. About 24% of young Americans ages 18 to 25 have used illicit drugs in the past month — usually in conjunction with alcohol.
This is a real problem because limbic areas of the brain (including the reward center) develop before the frontal lobe (which governs natural inhibitions and decision-making). So, before the brain matures at around age 25, we act immaturely and with excess emotionality. We’re driven towards reward-seeking, unreliable judgment — and consequentially — risk for substance misuse.
When teenagers struggle with emotional problems, they often turn to alcohol and drugs to help them manage painful or difficult feelings. In this they are not different from adults. But because adolescent and young adult brains are still developing, the results of “self-medication” can be more immediately problematic. In the short term, substance use can alleviate unwanted mental health symptoms like hopelessness, anxiety, irritability and negative thoughts. But in the longer term it exacerbates them, and often ends in substance use dependence. Substance use also escalates from experimentation to a serious disorder much faster in adolescents than it does in adults, and that progression is more likely to happen in kids with mental health disorders than in other kids.
One of the things we can do is to help young adults understand their developmental processes, particularly the brain’s reward center and how it influences risk taking before the age of 25. In addition, we can reinforce protective factors against substance use, specifically:
- solid bonds and support from their family of origin
- healthy beliefs and strong positive values
- spirituality and resiliency;
- opportunities for positive social involvement;
- recognition of positive behavior; and
- being in a committed relationship with a partner who does not misuse alcohol or other substances.
Learn more about: how substance use affects teens and young adults