Millennial and Drug Addiction: Reframing the Conversation

Millenial laying in the leaves

A 2013 New York Times headline raised contemplation if the Millennials “stand a chance in the real world”. Current media rarely portrays the Millennial in a positive light.

So is it safe to assume that the millennials are more prone to drug addiction simply because they are morally weak? Recent times have, however, unearthed addiction to be a rewiring of the brain and a mental issue. [1]

“The Millennial generation,” also known as “Generation Y,” encompasses an expansive and highly influential demographic in America: 40 percent of all adults over the age of 21 (roughly two out of five Americans) belong to this group, which includes anyone who reached adulthood around the year 2000.

Higher Levels of Stress Amongst the Millennial

The Stress in America survey analyzed the ability to manage stress among individuals across generations and discovered variations depending on age.

Participants belonging to the younger age group reported highest levels of stress and admitted to not being able to manage it well.

Millennials are also exposed to a greater likelihood to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or experience depression more than any other age group.

The survey further discovered that thirty-nine percent of Millennials reported increasing stress levels in the past year, compared to 36 percent of Gen Xers (individuals born during the range of first half of 1960s till early 1980s), 33 percent of Boomers (born from the early-to-mid 1940s and end from 1960 to 1964) and 29 percent of Matures (born before 1946).

Rating stress levels on a scale of one to 10, one indicating little or zero stress and 10 signifying a great deal of stress, the average general population score, in 2012, turned out to be 4.9, whereas for Millenials, the average score was 5.4.

The reasoning for such high levels of stress among Millennials remains largely unclear.

An expert at Harvard explained the predictable cycle of stress throughout a lifetime: stress levels are high in adolescence, dip during middle age and then rise again after the age of 70.

Based on this pattern, Millennials may just be reporting an established cycle where they are at the stage in life essentially characterized by major decisions and uncertainty.

Man thinking of stopping substance abuse

Another probable reason could be the wide awareness regarding mental health and increased sensitivity among the millennials than prior generations.

Feelings and emotions are not just heightened, but more attention is paid on sentiments as well.

Some experts suggest that the millennial generation graduates college with a huge accumulated debt and simultaneously, fewer earning futures. Almost 13 percent of this population is unemployed.

What’s more, millennials are growing amidst an unusual set of challenges unlike other generations. They were raised in a time of instability where there was war, a technological takeover of everyday life and rapid information.

It is important to understand that experience of addiction varies too for this generation largely due to an increased and early exposure to drugs and alcohol, extreme academic pressure, newly discovered issue with body image and mental health issues of greater magnitude. [2]

The Link to Higher Substance Abuse

Higher substance use among the millennials has largely been attributed to their increasing levels of stress.

However, what cannot be ignored are the drastic political and pharmaceutical changes. Marijuana is now legal in several states and can be bought from specific stores outside medical purposes.

Stimulants are popular as “study drugs” among college students and opiate prescriptions have reached a record high. Accessibility to mind-altering drugs is greater than ever before.

Millenials, not just by age, but by temperament too are more attracted to experimentation and prone to peer pressure and the idea of fitting in. All of these factors fuel the vicious trend of substance abuse among young adolescents. [3]

Millennial Drug of Choice: Prescription Painkiller Medication

One in five teens has used prescription drugs recreationally.

Compared to any other generation, prescription painkiller abuse is found to be most rampant among the millennial. Over 12 percent of Millennials aged 19–20 reported recent painkiller abuse.

One survey highlighted as many as 20 percent of teens to be abusing prescription painkillers. As prescription opioid abuse and overdose continues, this generation could be at greater risk of addiction than ever.

Young people who use prescription drugs recreationally are 5 times more likely to develop a drug addiction in the future. Stimulants such as Adderall and Ritalin are used to pull all-nighters, maintain focus, enhance athletic performance and suppress appetites.

A common misconception fueling this addiction to prescription medication is that prescribed medication is safer than illicit street drugs. [4]

Other key substance abuse trends include the following:

  • Alcohol has almost always remained as the most used substance. According to National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), over 80 percent of Millennials were reported to have consumed alcohol.
  • Marijuana is the second most abused substance. In 2016, 38.3 percent of high school seniors in states with medical marijuana laws reported past-year marijuana use compared to 33.3 percent in nonmedical marijuana states.

Reframing Perspective

The addiction landscape is changing. The perception of addiction from a criminal shortcoming is transitioning into that of a medical issue.

Research has shown that the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that influences judgment and decision-making abilities, isn’t fully developed until about age 25.

This exposes young adults to seek quick fixes and rash decisions. Since drugs and alcohol are already playing a significant part in their social context, abusing these substances may seem a likely choice.

Woman seeking funding for addiction treatment“Addiction is not willful misconduct,” explained Gregory Bunt, president of the International Society of Addiction Medicine. “The addiction is so powerful it hijacks the individual’s mind, body and soul.”

In face of such adversity, it is vital to employ resources toward ensuring an effective strategy for prevention and treatment of addiction. This will require an integrated, all-encompassing effort targeted at funding, renewing laws and encouraging patients for treatment.

Bunt further elaborates, “It entails a lot of effort and, politically, is not always popular, but there has to be an effective evidence-based continuum of care that is supported by government officials and leaders.”[5]

Sana Ahmed photoAbout the Author:

A journalist and social media savvy content writer with wide research, print and on-air interview skills, Sana Ahmed has previously worked as staff writer for a renowned rehabilitation institute focusing on mental health and addiction recovery, a content writer for a marketing agency, an editor for a business magazine and been an on-air news broadcaster.

Sana graduated with a Bachelors in Economics and Management from London School of Economics and began a career of research and writing right after. The art of using words to educate, stir emotions, create change and provoke action is at the core of her career, as she strives to develop content and deliver news that matters.



The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on August 21, 2017
Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on August 21, 2017.
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About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.