We had the pleasure of working with NONFICTION Research to explore a "burning question" affecting our society. The only rule? "If you don't feel like an investigative journalist, you're not going far enough."
What is Gen Z's attitude toward drugs & alcohol?
As we dove into background research, we quickly realized that to understand drugs, we needed to understand mental health, pop culture, generational cycles, social pressures, education, existential dread, and more.
So, we cast a wide net—interviewing a therapist specializing in substance abuse, a neuroscientist studying psychedelics, a chief of medicine, a pyscho-spiritual retreat leader, a drug dealer, and—to get the story straight from the source—15 everyday Gen Z'ers.
Being a young adult is overwhelming. It always has been, and it always will be. But Gen Z isn't just overwhelmed, it's overstimulated.
As the first generation to grow up digital natives, their lives have been spent plugged in to everything going on everywhere at every moment.
“I can pretty confidently say that I’ve seen a lot more anxiety disorders [that are] directly correlated with constant information overload. In a lot of ways, [Gen Z] has stressors that a lot of us didn’t due to the overabundance of accessibility to information.”
—Erika Marrer, Licensed Therapist
A Modern Mental Health Epidemic
of Gen Z'ers experienced symptoms of anxiety in the past month
of Gen Z'ers reported experiencing depression in 2020
And of course, many sad, stressed out, anxious teenagers turn to the same things sad, stressed out, anxious teenagers always have—drugs and alcohol. But we found that the mindset and motivations have changed. With different stressors, Gen Z is turning to substances with different goals.
"The overload of stimuli has people feeling desensitized. People are craving to feel something. To feel like their life means something beyond the immediacy of the screen in front of them."
—Mario De La Fuente, Neuroscientist, PhD
Gen Z is drinking
than Millennials did, per capita
of 18-25 year olds used marijuana in the past year, the highest of any age group
college students used psychedelics in 2020, the highest number since 1982
Increasingly, Gen Z is turning toward substances responsible for heightened sensory experiences—opening themselves up to new feelings and emotions in a desensitizing world—and turning away from substances that they associate with numbing, dampening, and escaping from emotional pain, such as alcohol.
"I replaced alcohol with LSD, and that opened me up. I found connection going out into nature or going dancing, and it helped precipitate deeper soul questions to look at."
—Jonathan Sekerak, Psycho-Spiritual Counselor
Gen Z is looking beyond the dominant narrative
50% of adults have done "illicit" drugs in their lifetime. 5% of the population are considered addicts. Yet while the majority of people that use drugs don't have a drug "problem," that 5% has largely defined the way our society views drug use.
Gen Z is looking past that narrative. With the internet and social media opening up the conversation and democratizing information access, there's more room for Gen Z to explore the testimonies of real people who have a relationship, but not a problem, with drugs.
Gen Z is embracing the full spectrum of human emotion
Rather than denying or suppressing their emotions, Gen Z strives to acknowledge and work through them. As a result, 37% of Gen Z'ers have reported seeking out mental health treatment—a higher share than any preceding generation.
This emotional openness frames their relationship with drugs. When desensitization is the default, emotional exploration becomes the goal.
Gen Z is reclaiming the term "self-medication"
As Gen Z grapples with modern challenges to mental health, we found that they are viewing drugs as a tool in a holistic approach to happiness. Whereas the term "self-medication" has carried a stigma among previous generations, we found that our interview subjects took pride in taking agency over their own health. Rather than putting their health in the hands of traditional authorities with traditional solutions, Gen Z has adopted the mindset that nobody knows what they need better than them.
“I know so many people who have stopped antidepressants and switched to medical marijuana because they were tired of feeling like a zombie.”
- Gen Z interview subject
Want to read more?
My Role: Poring over data sheets from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, brainstorming off-the-wall questions for our interviews, writing the script for our video, and helping to build the narrative flow of our report.