Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) and Mental Health in Young Adults: Five Ways Employers Can Help

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For Employers
3 min read


Young employees working

Substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental illness impact all age groups; however, they’re having an especially damaging effect on a more vulnerable subgroup of the population: young adults from 18 to 25 years old.

According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, young adults 18-25 had the highest percentage of people with a past year SUD among all age groups. In addition to having higher rates of alcohol, cigarette, and e-cigarette use, young adults are also more likely than any other age group to use illicit substances. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that young adults were the biggest users of prescription pain relievers, ADHD stimulants, and anti-anxiety drugs.

In 2020, about 31 percent of people aged 18 to 25 binge drank, meaning women who had four or more drinks and men who had five or more drinks in a two-hour period.

Addressing absenteeism, loss of productivity, and other SUD impacts

SUD use can have negative effects on physical and mental health as well as on academic and occupational performance. SUDs can also increase the risk of accidents and injuries, and lead to other long-term health problems. In the workplace, the impact and costs of substance use show up in absenteeism, loss of productivity, and workers’ compensation claims.

Here are five ways employers can help address SUDs and mental health in the workplace:

  1. Adopt a more holistic focus on employee health and well-being
  2. Expand wellness benefits and resources
  3. Create a positive, inclusive workplace environment that breaks down SUD stigma and barriers to care
  4. Provide easy-to-use, confidential access to care and support for SUDs, including virtual therapy, coaching, and medication
  5. Offer low- or no-cost access to evidence-based apps for stress reduction, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other digital support services

Substance use prevention for families and dependent children

Although higher rates of substance use among young adults are well established, existing workplace substance use prevention and early intervention programs primarily target older workers. Because many employers fund family plans that cover dependent children until they reach age 26, the financial burden of rising healthcare costs—including emergency care, hospitalizations, and residential treatment facilities—also falls on employers’ shoulders.

Unlike other healthcare conditions, the hard costs of substance use—including among dependent children of employees—are often hidden within medical claims, including heart and liver disease, osteoporosis, musculoskeletal problems, diabetes, cancer, chronic kidney disease, and mental health disorders.

With research showing that employer-initiated SUD treatment is more successful than treatment initiated by family members or friends, it’s clear that employers can have a direct impact on the young adult and SUD challenge. This happens through high-quality behavioral health benefits and better access to substance and mental health programs.

SUD treatment in young adults 

The principal goal of SUD treatment in young adults is achieving and maintaining abstinence from illegal or harmful substance use and encouraging responsible use of alcohol and other legal substances. Treatment itself should ideally focus on evidence-based principles of care, including:

  • Integrated mental health and addiction care
  • Care that is responsive to the needs of young adults exposed to trauma and other adverse childhood experiences
  • Treatment programs that regularly assess and respond to the evolving needs, motivations, and treatment goals of young adults

SUDs among young adults is a challenge most employers will face, but one that also presents great opportunities. Employers can not only save on SUD-related healthcare costs, but can also support families and their dependents with SUD programs and treatment that make a difference in their lives and improve outcomes.

To learn more about how your benefits or total rewards team can help address SUDs in your organization, contact us or sign up for a customized demo.

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