How the Pandemic Changed Young People’s Relationship to Substances

How the Pandemic Changed Young People’s Relationship to Substances

How the Pandemic Changed Young People’s Relationship to Substances

During a year of isolation, many young adults increased their consumption of alcohol and other drugs. 


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With no parties, no sporting events, and with bars closed or at limited capacity, many of the social avenues for young people to drink and use other drugs were largely extinguished at the beginning of the pandemic. According to a study published ​​in the Journal of Adolescent Health, while the percentage of users decreased during lockdown, the frequency of alcohol use amongst adolescents actually increased. Boredom and isolation led both heavy and social-users to use substances more routinely, with around 49 percent of adolescents engaging in solitary substance use, and 56 percent of young adults reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorders. Eventually, some reached a point where they had to seriously reevaluate their relationship with substances—whether it’s alcohol, weed, or other drugs.

“Every day, I would start drinking at 5 o’clock on the dot,” said Janelle Tan, a 25-year-old who started working from home during the pandemic. “I wasn’t even drinking because I wanted to get drunk. It just became a ritual and a routine.” Tan said that although she was always a heavy drinker before the pandemic, she strayed from her rule of never keeping alcohol in the house, drinking to create artificial divisions within her day.

By the end of 2020, Tan said she was finishing multiple bottles in one night—until one particularly jarring experience forced her to reflect on her habit. “I remember there was a snowstorm in New York City in December right before Christmas,” Tan said. “I went to the liquor store and spent $80 on alcohol to stock up. I ended up drinking through it in three days, and that was a huge wake up call for me.”

Tan quit cold-turkey between January and April 2021, and although she has been drinking with friends since businesses opened again at the beginning of the summer, Tan said she is much more conscious about how much and frequently she consumes—making sure that she’s using substances socially, and not habitually.

For some, a reemergence of social events has not been an invitation to resume using substances. Taylor Fogarty, a junior at Columbia University, spent years working in the service industry and managing bars—leading her to drink and use drugs regularly, especially during late hours. But when she quit working in the service industry right before the pandemic, she didn’t quit drinking alcohol. “I was drinking a lot during lockdown out of pure boredom and isolation,” Fogarty said.

That all came to an end in October 2020, after a night she describes as “rock bottom.” “I had a particularly bad birthday where I got really drunk, and lashed out at a bunch of people,” Fogarty said. “I woke up in my own throw up after hooking up with a stranger off Tinder. I had just turned 27 the night before, and I literally just woke up and was like, ‘All right, this is it. You’re done.’”

Shortly after, Fogarty checked into an Alcoholics Anonymous program—a step she said she would have never taken if meetings weren’t held virtually. “Attending an AA meeting on Zoom wasn’t as intimidating as walking into a church,” Fogarty said. “Especially as a young person, there’s a lot of stigma associated with going to AA, and with everything being online, I could also go to a meeting anywhere at all hours.

Luke (who declined to give his last name for privacy reasons), said that if he weren’t forced to live near his support networks, he wouldn’t have had the courage to get help. The 23-year-old graduated from college at the beginning of the pandemic and moved back home as campuses shut down. In college, Luke said he was a heavy drinker, and would binge-drink with his friends three to four days a week. And even when he moved back home to Boston, he would still hang out with friends and drink “socially.”

“Even though I was drinking with people, I was always overdoing it,” Luke said. These habits only worsened as the pandemic went on, as he was still living at home and working a new job remotely. During the winter, a time when he said he felt the most isolated, he would black out alone three to four days a week. After a series of near-death drunk driving incidents, as well as regrettable conversations he had with friends while intoxicated, Luke decided something had to change.

At the beginning of April, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and has been sober since. He attributes his sobriety not only to the pandemic but also to being home with his parents. “Having my parents see me drunk all the time and be like, ‘What are you doing?’ made me realize I had an issue,” Luke said. “I think if the pandemic didn’t happen, I would still be drinking. The pandemic accelerated everything super-fast—including my alcoholism.”

But for many young people, being stuck at home with their parents only increased their substance use. When the pandemic hit, Zoë (who declined to give her last name for privacy reasons) started using substances to cope once she realized that living at home was quickly becoming a more permanent situation. “Every day I would wake up and smoke out of my window or drink like half a bottle of Bacardi,” Zoë said.

In September of 2020, Zoë finally went back to campus. She was less isolated, living in a more social environment, and said her substance use actually decreased. “At home for me, there are so many rules,” Zoë said. “It kind of felt rebellious to be drinking or smoking, and also just living with my family was a lot.” Since starting a new job at the beginning of the summer that requires drug testing, Zoë has been using substances less. However, she finds herself reaching for alcohol as a way to deal with her emotions more than she did before the pandemic. “How frequently I drink now depends more on my mood,” Zoë said. “If I have a bad day at work, I want to go to the liquor store. If I have a good day, I’m chillin’.”

During a year of isolation, many young adults have had to find new ways to cope while shaking off habits perpetuated by a culture where social events and substance use often go hand in hand. And while many found themselves at their all-time low, it acted as a catalyst for necessary change and reflection on their relationships with substances. “Getting sober during the pandemic made me realize how much I drink,” Tan said. “And even though I still do, I notice how I feel when I’m drinking and when I’m not. I know where and when to set boundaries for myself.”

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