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“Individuals in this age group grapple with stress, expectations, relationships, and mental health needs, which singularly or collectively can contribute to substance misuse.” — Mike Graham-Squire, Drug Free Communities Manager at Neighborhood House in Seattle

Addressing Substance Misuse Transition-Age Youth Not Attending College

Addressing Substance Misuse Among Transition-Age Youth Not Attending College

Young adults ages 18 to 25, also defined as transition-age youth, are at high risk for substance misuse—particularly alcohol and marijuana use. Research shows that nonstudents are at a higher risk than college students of developing alcohol use disorder.[1] Nonstudents also were more likely to have used marijuana in the past month.[2]

To date, prevention efforts for this age group have been focused almost exclusively on those who attend a four-year college, creating a gap in prevention messaging and efforts when it comes to young adults who are taking different paths in their lives. SAMHSA has created the information on this page to help tackle alcohol and substance misuse among young adults who are exploring their futures outside of the college setting. These individuals may already be in the workforce, enrolled in community college, or in other occupational and educational roles.

There is tremendous opportunity for prevention professionals and others who interface with young adults—whether they are high school guidance counselors; workplace HR managers; medical providers; or those who work in shelters, intervention and juvenile justice centers, and job corps—to play a role in connecting young adults to facts about substance use and services that can help them make healthy choices as they enter adulthood.

Start by:

  1. Having a conversation. Demonstrate that you care about their well-being, without judgment, and that you are a good source of information and can help them make informed decisions.
  2. Screening young adults by behavioral health professionals for potential substance use using the following tool: https://www.samhsa.gov/sbirt.
  3. Sharing what you know. Hearing actual accounts of young adults who have struggled with and overcome substance misuse problems can go a long way. Also, point to stories on social media or in the news to help illustrate why substance misuse leads to bad outcomes.
  4. Framing consequences in the short term and avoiding fear tactics. Research shows that long-term health and other consequences don’t resonate with this population[3] and fear tactics can backfire[4].
  5. Offering alternatives. If young adults you know seem to be using substances out of boredom or an abundance of time, help connect them to activities that will enrich their lives, like volunteering or taking up a sport. Frame these activities as a healthy and fulfilling way to transition into adulthood.
  6. Partnering with other organizations to work together to address substance misuse among transition-age youth. For instance, health professionals can work with organizations providing youth services to direct them to the healthy activities referenced above.
  7. Connecting with parents to let them know they are still an important influence in their children’s lives even after they turn 18 and leave high school.[5]


SAMHSA Resources

Find additional SAMHSA Products and Resources at the Prevention Technology Transfer Center (PTTC) Network.

Other Resources

Stay tuned for more information and additional resources that will be added to this page.

[1] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2021). Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed tables. (Table 6.26A – REVISED) https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/2020-nsduh-detailed-tables

[2] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality. (2021). Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed tables. Table 6.24B (REVISED). Retrieved from: https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/reports/rpt35323/NSDUHDetailedTabs2020v25/NSDUHDetailedTabs2020v25/NSDUHDetTabsSect6pe2020.htm#tab6-24b

[3] Gerend, M. A., & Cullen, M. (2008). Effects of message framing and temporal context on college student drinking behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44(4): 1167–1173). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022103108000292

[4] SAMHSA’s Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies. (2015). Using Fear Messages and Scare Tactics in Substance Abuse Prevention Efforts. Retrieved from https://preventionactionalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/fear-messages-prevention-efforts.pdf

[5] Lipari, R. N. (2017). Exposure to substance use prevention messages among adolescents. The CBHSQ Report. Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Retrieved from https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_3380/ShortReport-3380.html