National study of youth finds surprising – and unsurprising – results

Melanie Dallas headshotMelanie Dallas, LPC, CEO of Highland Rivers Behavioral Health (photo courtesy of CCCSB)

By Melanie Dallas, LPC

This guest opinion article is by Melanie Dallas, LPC, the CEO of Highland Rivers Behavioral Health

If I write frequently about the mental health of our youth, and especially the impact of the pandemic on youth, it’s because it is so important. Not only do young people represent the future of our nation and our communities, but children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable; the experiences of childhood – positive and negative – can have life-long impacts. That’s why I found a study released late last year to be of particular interest: the long-term implications may be good news for today’s young people, but may also foreshadow some concerning trends.

Every year since 1975, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) conducts a nationwide survey of substance use among young people. Carried out by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, the annual Monitoring the Future study surveys students in 8th, 10th and 12th grades about their use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. The survey data helps researchers, policy makers and communities learn more about current trends in substance use, and where to focus education and prevention efforts.


According to the survey, in the 1970s and 1980s, substance use among adolescents surveyed was substantial. In 1975, for example, the majority of young people (55%) had used an illicit drug by the time they left high school. This figure rose to two thirds (66%) by 1981 before a long, gradual decline to 41% by 1992 – the low point for 12th graders. Trends varied through the 1990s and early 2000s, but were declining overall.

Then in 2021, as the pandemic entered its second year, the results surprised nearly everyone. According to a press release issued by the University of Michigan last December, when the 2021 Monitoring the Future report was released, declines in adolescent use of illicit drugs were the largest and most sweeping ever recorded in the past 46 years.

Further, the percentage of youth who had ever used any illicit drug other than marijuana decreased by more than 25% in 2021; in 12th grade this percentage was 27% smaller than in the previous year, in 10th grade the decline was 31%, and in 8th grade the drop was 30%. Researchers also found significant declines across a wide range of drugs, including cocaine, hallucinogens and nonmedical use of amphetamines, tranquilizers and prescription opioids.

Researchers aren’t sure what accounts for this steep decline in drug use. Perhaps the disruptions in daily life caused by the pandemic also disrupted the ability to acquire substances. Likewise, the authors cannot say whether this decline in substance use is a one-time event linked to the pandemic, or if, hopefully, part of a larger trend away from drug use among youth. Certainly, we hope it is the latter.

Unfortunately, not all findings in the report were as positive, especially those related to youth mental health. In 2021, students were asked if they experienced increases or decreases in feeling anxious, angry, annoyed and irritable, as well as feeling worried, sad or depressed, or have difficulties sleeping or concentrating.

As a whole, students in 8th, 10th and 12th grades all reported significant increases for each of the 11 mental health measures they were asked about. These results are consistent with several other studies assessing the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of children and adolescents. As I’ve written before, addressing these issues must remain a priority of parents, educators, and really, anyone who works with youth.

Of course, each Monitoring the Future survey is essentially a snapshot, and it is only over a period of years that we see whether a particular year’s findings represent a trend. Nonetheless, substance use and mental health education, prevention and access to services is critical. Time will tell if the pandemic will have a lasting impact on the substance use and mental health of today’s adolescents, but we cannot wait to see.

Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Behavioral Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities in a 13-county region of northwest Georgia that includes Bartow, Cherokee, Cobb, Floyd, Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon, Haralson, Murray, Paulding, Pickens, Polk and Whitfield counties.