Young People Are Taking More Drugs Now Because Life Sucks

According to new research, one in five 16 to 25-year-olds are using drugs to "escape problems in their lives".
Unhappy smiley face surrounded by recreational drugs
Image: Lily Lambie-Kiernan

Young people taking drugs is nothing new. For as long as partying has existed, so have mind-altering substances. That said, it turns out more young people in the UK are taking drugs than usual. New research from youth charity The Mix recently reported a 50 percent rise in the number of young people taking drugs since 2021, with one in three 16 to 25-year-olds using drugs in the past year. There was also an increase in usage of all class A, B or C drugs from 2021, with methadone, cannabis, amphetamines and tranquilisers showing the highest increases.

While these numbers might not sound completely wild considering the lifting of lockdown restrictions and reopening of the sesh, the survey also found that one in five are primarily using substances to “escape problems in their lives”. This marks a 75 percent increase in the number of young people using drugs for escapism in comparison to this time last year. Which is, er, quite a lot. So what’s going on? Why are so many young people taking drugs to escape?

Sasha, 20, uses ketamine regularly to escape her problems. Like everyone else we spoke to, she asked us to change her name due to the illegality of drugs. “I can’t really control my emotions so sometimes when I’m angry or sad I just feel the need to do something to numb it for a while,” she explains. “Or, after I’ve had a hard time I’ll go out that weekend and get wrecked. The ability to escape from the bad stuff becomes extremely addictive.”

Recently, Sasha says, she hasn’t felt entirely at ease when sober. “I started feeling like I wasn’t myself if I wasn’t on something,” she tells me. “Sometimes I don’t really like doing ket at raves or parties, but I feel like I need it during the week to help me feel sane. There have even been times when I’ve done it at work.”

Emily, 19, has also found herself getting into drugs more recently. She takes ketamine a few times a week and also MDMA at least once a week – and not just for fun or partying purposes. “I’ve tried so many drugs for the first time this year,” she says. “Instead of just using when I go out, I also use at home on my own now.” It’s had a knock-on effect on her finances: Earlier this year, she had to take out a £1,000 loan to make ends meet.

Emily says that drugs offer an escape from her anxieties. Life is uncertain right now, especially for young people in the UK who spent their teen years locked indoors and now have adulthood looming ahead. “I feel like I am so overwhelmed with the stress of adulthood,” she says. “It’s so difficult for young people nowadays, especially with the cost of living crisis. It feels like there is no hope for us to get on with life, have our own house… That’s why I use drugs more now – because I don’t see much hope for the future.”


Emily isn’t alone in her struggles. Recent research from The Prince’s Trust found that almost 23 percent of young people in the UK agree that they will never recover from the emotional impact of the pandemic. Almost half of them say that the pandemic has left them feeling “burnt out”. According to The Prince’s Trust, the report reveals that the happiness and confidence of 16 to 25-year-olds has hit its lowest point in 13 years.

Meanwhile, life isn’t getting any easier. It’s hard for young people people to feel stable in the UK when the average cost of buying a home in the UK has increased almost twice as much as the wages of the average worker during the past 50 years. And alongside an increasingly difficult cost of living crisis and renting crisis, there’s also the looming climate crisis, putting the future of the entire planet into question. Not exactly cheery stuff.

Steve Rolles, senior policy analyst for Transform Drug Policy Foundation, agrees that young peoples’ anxieties will have definitely been compounded by the pandemic, among other modern issues. They’re not just dealing with an uncertain future – they’re also processing the past and trying to make up for lost time.

“The Mix report identifies a concerning rise in the use of drugs as a form of escape or self-medication,” says Steve. “Specifically the issues created or made worse by the pandemic and the lockdown: loneliness, nihilism, social anxiety, lack of connection and undermining of peer and friendship networks.”


“We don't know what the longer-term impacts will be for the generation of young people who lived through the lockdown,” he adds.

Young people are pretty candid about drugs on social media in ways other generations might not have been. Videos of young people with dilated pupils and running noses flood the creatively named TikTok hashtags #pingtok, #horsetranquilizer and #c0ketok, celebrating or lamenting their dedication to the sesh. “I have noticed a lot of people that never used to do drugs have started, and it’s the people I never expected it from,” says Sasha. 

“Sometimes friends that have never tried a certain drug – or any drug – message me asking if I’ll do it with them. I think TikTok has a lot to do with it as I see so many comments of very young people tagging their mates saying they need to try pills.”

Meanwhile, having to work zero-hour contract jobs and long, gruelling shifts to make ends meet is obviously going to make people want to let off some steam. Solomon, 22, found that his cocaine use increased while working at a restaurant where the after-hours culture was often drug-fuelled. “We were working really, really hard, and that made de-stressing at bars, clubs or after parties feel important but also draining,” he explains.

“I would have a lot of pent up anger at myself or the difficulties around me, that I perhaps couldn't channel in a way to better my situation – I would only be able to discharge it by taking drugs,” Solomon continues. “Sometimes it was after a long and difficult day at work, or a DJ set that went badly. It gave me a sense of control or even felt like a natural way of relieving male frustration.”

Solomon has since managed to cut down, but is aware of how easy it is to find yourself in a cycle of taking a lot of drugs, especially during periods of poor mental health. “Comedowns were really rough and my anxiety was skyrocketing. I felt like an addict, but every time things got really stressful, I would still turn to coke almost as an expression of anger at the world around me,” he says.

Despite drug use among young people increasing, there is still a lack of support available for those who actually need it. According to The Mix report, only 28 per cent of young drug users who have experienced issues with substance use have accessed any support or services. This means that there are likely over 2.2 million young people who are struggling without help.

It also seems unlikely that things will change anytime soon. We have a Tory government who have spent the past ten years or so completely restructuring how British drug treatment works, moving treatment away from harm reduction and onto the shoulders of the already-stretched charity sector. “We need to address young people's drug use as what it is; a public health issue, not a criminal justice one,” says Steve. 

“This means dealing with the realities of drug culture as it already exists and providing resources and services that reduce harms, rather than increase them. If even a fraction of the drug enforcement budget was directed into services like The Loop’s drug safety checking, or the billions we spend building bigger prisons was directed into better mental health services – then we might start getting somewhere.”

As more young people turn to drugs as a way of coping with a society that is ambivalent – at best – about their futures, the most important thing they can do is educate themselves and learn how to stay as safe as possible. Always test your drugs, look out for your mates and seek support if the sesh starts feeling like it’s all getting a bit much.

“Knowledge is power,” adds Steve. “It's really important that young people have access to honest, accurate information about drugs, their effects, the risks and how to manage and reduce them... We don't help keep young people who use drugs safe by declaring war on them.”

@annavictoriasam / @lilylk__