Young adult alone in a tunnel.
Published on: Mar 29, 2021

Opioid use disorders now affect over 2.1 million people in the United States, and rates of drug overdose have skyrocketed over the past three decades. In a collaboration between the Penn State Population Research Institute and Syracuse University’s Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion, researchers presented their findings in a recently published research brief and a recent article in Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

Lead author Alexander Chapman, sociology and demography doctoral candidate at Penn State, says many people who misuse opioids begin during young adulthood. In this age group, one of the most important trends over the past several decades are changes in family formation. Given marriage rates have been declining over the last decade, there are now more adults without a partner or children, a group researchers refer to as “disconnected adults”.

“Because of changing family structures and the dismantling of many institutions that served as safety nets, increasingly young adults are self-medicating for psychological pain and distress,” said Chapman.

The researchers analyzed data on adults ages 18-34 from the 2002-2018 waves of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health to determine links between these changes in family structure and opioid use. They found that married young adults, and those with children, have lower rates of addiction and overdose.

“Some young adults are facing family conflicts and breakdowns, which increases in rates of substance misuse,” Chapman said. “Our findings suggest that new policy efforts, like expanded Child Tax Credits that enable people to achieve the families they wish to have, may have long-term benefits in preventing substance misuse.”

Additionally, the researchers recommend young adults establish social connections within their communities. “Meaningful employment, friendships, and participation in faith-based and other community organizations also provide support, purpose, and meaning,” said Chapman. “If we want to keep people from misusing drugs, we must provide opportunities for everyone to engage in activities that bring meaning and purpose.”

The work is being supported by Penn State’s Population Research Institute, the Social Science Research Institute, and the National Institute of Aging.

Additional authors of the brief include Ashton Verdery, Harry and Elissa Sichi Early Career Professor of Sociology, Demography, and Social Data Analytics at Penn State; and Shannon Monnat, Lerner Chair for Public Health Promotion, associate professor of sociology, and co-director of the Policy, Place, and Population Health Lab in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.