Em had been a regular weed smoker since the age of 17. It wasn't a big deal – she liked how it relaxed her, or made the time pass. Then obstacles in life started to change her relationship to the drug. She had to drop out of university because of anxiety, just before finishing her dissertation. This meant moving back in with her parents and away from her mates. Her relationship started to break down. The loneliness – and the amount she was smoking – increased.
"You're distracted from your own feelings," she explains over the phone. "Things are more enjoyable. It was easier to distract myself if I was watching things [while high] – I wasn't constantly thinking I was watching it alone."
Young people are lonelier than ever. According to a recent YouGov poll from health and social care organisation Turning Point, released on Monday, 54 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds feel lonely. We seem to be facing a modern crisis of loneliness, so unprecedented that in 2018 Theresa May appointed an MP for loneliness.
In 2017, American economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton argued that social isolation has contributed to a rise in alcohol-related deaths and overdoses in America and Britain. According to the YouGov poll, 12 percent of British adults say they use drugs or alcohol to cope with loneliness – and it's young people who are turning to substances the most: 21 percent of 18 to 24-year-olds experience intoxication once a week or more. When young people are more likely to feel lonely than older generations, and the rate of drug use among that age group is highest, no wonder the two become linked.
For Em, the effects of weed were perfect for hiding her loneliness: "It just makes the time fly by," she says. "It's a lot harder to dwell on stuff when you're distracted really easily."
"I was probably having a joint an hour," she continues. "There was never an occasion where I didn't have it. I was choosing it over everyone else."
Eventually, Em started to realise that the increased smoking had been due to a heavy sense of loneliness that she couldn't displace. "It was very isolating to be in that relationship [with weed, but] once I started socialising again, and my loneliness started dropping out, I realised that I didn't need it, and that was when it started to click for me that this was the only reason I'd been doing it."
For the majority of young people, illegal drug use is recreational, associated with nights out or socialising with friends after work. However, alongside the rise of loneliness among young people, it's clear that this kind of relationship can morph into a crutch, to stifle feelings of isolation.
The link between loneliness and increased drug use isn't new. In 2016, a report in the Journal of Depression and Anxiety found that higher levels of "chronic social loneliness" led to a higher rate of substance abuse in young people. This, said the researchers, was because negative feelings associated with loneliness can lead to "negative behavioural outcomes", like abusing drugs or alcohol.
So why might young people be feeling more lonely? "Nobody wants to think they're lonely when we're in a society that's supposedly very connected," says Jane Wright, regional head of operations for substance misuse at charity Turning Point. "Social media can be a blessing and a curse. Everyone else looks like they're having a fantastic time, but sometimes that can contribute to feeling quite isolated."
Not only can social media increase a sense of loneliness, but for a generation more likely than ever to study at university, in an age group more likely to move away from their hometown, displacement can lead to feelings of isolation. "Young people are very mobile," says Wright. "Communities are a lot more displaced."
This was the case for Becca*, who found her drug and alcohol use increased when she moved away to study.
"When going out, I think I aim to get to a level of being 'fucked'," she tells me. "I have many friends who I'm close to and are there for me, but I always feel lonely and feel like I can't truly be myself, or aren't truly who I want to be."
Although heading to university accelerated these feelings of isolation, the casual drug culture there has made it easier for Becca to not think of her drug and alcohol use as a problem.
"Obviously I don't think it's a good way of dealing with things, but in this environment it's what everyone's doing," she says. "It makes it a lot more acceptable."
Party drugs like ketamine or MDMA make a sense of isolation from her friends easier to deal with, because she's (relatively) in control of the feeling created by the drugs. "The issue is that I never feel like I'm truly present in my friendships, or that people don't understand me," she says. "I think that's still the case when I'm high or when I'm drinking, but it's by choice almost."
Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, points out our society is increasingly becoming more disconnected. "All human beings know they have natural physical needs," he says over the phone. "There's equally strong evidence that all human beings have natural psychological needs. We've been less and less good at meeting these deep, underlying psychological needs that people have. One of the psychological needs… is the need to have social connections."
"Human beings evolved to live in tribes," he continues. "We are the first humans ever to try to disband our tribes. The figures on loneliness are just shocking."
It's not unusual, then, that young people might use drugs and alcohol to alleviate feelings of loneliness – or any other pain. "I would say to anyone: if through no fault of your own you've been made financially insecure, you've got massive amounts of student debt, you and everyone you know interacts primarily through social media sites designed to make you feel angry and alienated, and you respond by feeling terrible and seeking a chemical remedy to that pain," says Hari, "you're not crazy, you're not weak and you shouldn't blame or criticise yourself."
"We've created a social environment that for many people is intolerable," he concludes, "and when you do that, you create a lot of addictive drug use."
When the blame lies with external factors rather than at the feet of the individual, using drugs or alcohol to cope with loneliness can be hard to curtail. While Becca knows that what she's doing isn't the best way to deal with loneliness, she doesn't see herself stopping.
"I think, at least for the time being, I will continue to [use drugs to help with loneliness]," she says. "I'm not at a point where I want to stop."
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.