Young Adults Turning to Drugs & Alcohol to Cope with COVID Stress

Adults ages 18-24 are using drugs at an alarming rate compared to other age groups.

College-Age Adults are Using More Drugs & Alcohol to Cope with COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended most people’s sense of normal, forcing many to adapt to new schedules, new work environments and a different kind of work/family balance. These abrupt shifts combined with uncertainty can impact mental health and cause some to turn to unhealthy coping methods.

We recently surveyed 500 South Florida residents about their mental health and substance use to better understand how our local community is coping with COVID-19. The results showed that many respondents reported higher rates of drug and alcohol use, as well as impacts to their mental health. We also wanted to understand what the results said about different age groups and their reaction to the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s what we found.

The Recovery Village Survey Results by Age Group

We surveyed 500 South Florida residents about their mental health and drug and alcohol use in the past month. Note: Some questions asked respondents to select each option that applied, so in a few instances, the total percentage will be greater than one hundred. 

College-Age South Floridians Are Using Drugs at Alarming Rates Compared to Other Age Groups

College-age adults (18-24 years old) reported drug use at a significantly higher rate than other age groups.

  • Nearly one in three (27%) reported misusing prescription opioids and cocaine (29%). This makes them 75% more likely to use prescription opioids and 137% more likely to use cocaine than those 25 and older.
  • Almost a quarter (22%) reported heroin or fentanyl use, making them 163% more likely than those 25 and older to do so.
  • Over one in four report misusing benzodiazepines (26%) and prescription stimulants (26%). This makes them 154% more likely to misuse these stimulants and 98% more likely to misuse benzodiazepines. 
  • With 20% reporting meth use, they were 143% more likely than those over the age of 25. 
  • They were 48% more likely to report an increase in their past-month drug use and 27% more like to report a “significant” increase.
  • 42% reported feeling like they should cut back on their current consumption.

Even though alcohol use is similar among all age groups (roughly eight in ten reported past-month use), 18-24 year olds were nearly 60% more likely to report a significant increase over the past month. Just over a third felt they should cut back on their current consumption.

18-24 Year Olds More Stressed and Bored During Pandemic

Survey respondents were asked to identify the reasons for their substance use as well as the biggest reason behind their past-month use. Boredom, stress, coping with mental health symptoms and recreational/social were all reasons given for substance use, but there were some differences between young adults and those over the age of 25. 

In fact, 18-24 year olds were:

  • 74% more likely to report stress as the reason for their substance use than those 25 and older.
  • 50% more likely to report boredom than those 25 and older but significantly less likely (-48%) to say they’re substance use was social/recreational.

Unemployment & Campus Closures Could Be Main Drivers of Stress

COVID-19 could be contributing to these results through elevated rates of unemployment and alterations to the fall 2020 semester. The kinds of jobs we typically associate with college-age adults, such as restaurant service and retail jobs may not be as available in the wake of the pandemic. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 46.7% of young people were employed in July 2020, down from 56.2% in July 2019.

We’ve seen similar effects before; the economic recession that started in 2008 had the largest impact on young adults in part because young people tend to work in sectors that were most affected, such as manufacturing, construction, services and tourism. In fact, in 2009, 40% of the unemployed population was between 15 and 24 years old.

The stress of unemployment or even reduced hours could be at least part of the stress the surveyed young adults referenced as the biggest factor behind their substance use. Four out of five college students report financial difficulties related to the coronavirus and others have shared how important internships have disappeared or have been rescinded. Additionally, for those that have graduated college within the last few years, they are beginning their careers in an uncertain job market that has faced prolonged furloughs, job losses across industries and record unemployment. These factors indicate that pandemic-related stress may be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Additionally, many college campuses across the nation have shut down or partially opened. This extends to the usual college hangouts like bars, sporting events and parties. The lack of opportunity to socialize on campus and/or attending virtual classes rather than in-person could contribute to the boredom cited as a reason for substance use, as well as the reduced rate of recreational/social use.

As unemployment rates persist at historically high rates and social options remain limited, and will likely become even more restricted in the winter months, more young adults could turn to unhealthy options (like substance use) to cope with the lingering impacts of COVID-19, including increased depression.

Young Adults Experiencing More Depression Compared to Other Age Groups

All four age groups reported that COVID-19 has impacted their mental health. Our youngest adults (18-24 year olds) were 25% more likely to report a “significant” impact.

While three in four reported symptoms of anxiety across all age groups, 18-24 year olds are experiencing depression at a much higher rate. They were nearly 30% more likely to report feelings of depression/loneliness (81%).

Social isolation combined with employment uncertainty could also be driving these feelings of anxiety and depression, especially in our youngest adults. 

These young adults were also more likely to currently participate in therapy.

The surveyed 18-24 year olds were:

  • 61% more likely to be in therapy prior to the COVID-19 pandemic
  • 154% more likely to say they’ve started therapy as a result of the symptoms they’re now experiencing

A majority of both 18-24 year olds (35%) and 25-34 year olds (44%) say they are now considering therapy for their mental health symptoms compared to a majority of 35-44 year olds (38%) and 45+ (42%) who say they are “not considering” therapy currently. The 45+ group was also slightly more likely to report therapy is “not an option at this time” with 17% of respondents choosing this selection compared to approximately 10% of all other age groups. 

These results, including the rates of substance use due to boredom and stress, demonstrate a need for mental health resources across all age groups and a strong focus on healthy coping mechanisms in the South Florida community.

Why These Stats Are Troubling

While many believe that experimentation with drugs and alcohol is “just part of the college experience,” there is evidence that these attitudes can be harmful. Researchers have found that binge drinking can lower post-college employment chances. Substance use can also have negative effects on graduation rate, time to graduate, participation in extracurricular activities and even long-term health. 

If COVID-19 creates or contributes to prolonged unemployment for young adults, access to care for mental health and substance use could become more limited at the exact moment it becomes more critical for their long-term health and wellbeing. It may also drive even higher rates of substance misuse and eventually, addiction.

The survey results show that while young South Floridians have been heavily impacted by the pandemic, they are aware of the importance of receiving mental health care and cutting back on their problematic substance use. This awareness is an important first step to ensuring more people get the help they need.

Related Topic: Moving from Annoyed to Impactful: Working with the Selfie Generation

As a behavioral health care provider and leader in addiction treatment, we are dedicated to raising awareness and expanding access to high-quality treatment at our local facilities or through telehealth options for those who are unable or uncomfortable with traveling to a physical location. Helping individuals manage their mental health and break patterns of substance abuse are important ways to support the overall health and wellbeing of our communities.

To help support South Florida residents facing addiction or mental health concerns, The Recovery Village operates drug and alcohol rehab centers in Lake WorthAtlantis and Miami, in partnership with Baptist Health South Florida. We offer a full continuum of care, including telehealth for ongoing outpatient treatment and teletherapy for substance use and mental health conditions. Contact us to learn more about our treatment programs and options that can meet your needs.

For press inquiries, email [email protected]

Our Other COVID-Related Studies:

Sironi, Maria. “Economic Conditions of Young Adults Befo[…] the Great Recession.” Journal of Family and Economic Issues, October 17, 2017. Accessed October 6, 2020.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Employment and Unemployment Among Youth Summary.” August 18, 2020. Accessed October 6, 2020.

American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Binge drinking in college may lower chan[…] a job after college.” September 20, 2017. Accessed October 6, 2020.

Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “The Labor Market for Recent College Graduates.” July 17, 2020. Accessed October 6, 2020.

Whitford, Emma. “August Wave of Campus Reopening Reversals.” Inside Higher Ed, August 12, 2020. Accessed October 6, 2020.

Harring, Alex. “Many college graduates are relying on un[…]ent to pay the bills.” CNBC, July 14, 2020. Accessed October 6, 2020.

Morgan, Emmanuel. “Pour one out for 2020 grads. It’ll be […]a job in this market.” Los Angeles Times, May 8, 2020. Accessed October 6, 2020.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.