"My Life Isn't Defined by Substance Use": Recovery Perspectives Among Young Adults with Substance Use Disorder

J Gen Intern Med. 2022 Mar;37(4):816-822. doi: 10.1007/s11606-021-06934-y. Epub 2021 Jun 7.


Background: While substance use disorder remains a leading cause of morbidity and mortality for young adults, low rates of treatment engagement and retention persist. One explanation is that substance use disorder treatment approaches do not match young adults' expectations for recovery. While the concept of recovery has been explored among adult populations, less is known about how young adults think about recovery.

Objective: To describe perspectives of recovery among young adults with substance use disorder.

Design: Qualitative, in-depth interviews exploring young adults' definitions of recovery.

Participants: Twenty English-speaking young adults (7 women; 21-29 years old) diagnosed with substance use disorder recruited from an urban safety net hospital in Massachusetts.

Approach: Interviews were recorded and transcribed verbatim. An iterative categorization analytic approach was used to identify and interpret themes.

Key results: Four themes related to recovery were identified. First, young adults described recovery as a way to grow up and live a normal life not defined by the substance use. A second theme was recovery had to include multiple components, such as mental health treatment, to be successful. Third, young adults described recovery as a self-motivated process, and it was important that young adults had agency in recovery decision-making. Fourth, recovery was described as a lifelong pursuit that required vigilance and commitment.

Conclusions: In this qualitative study of young adults with substance use disorder, participants identified themes that have implications for treatment models. Participants recognized recovery as a complex and individually motivated process that includes multiple components such as mental health treatment and re-engagement in regular daily activities. Models of care for young adults should consider incorporating these treatment elements to improve engagement and retention.

Keywords: opioid use disorder; recovery; substance use disorder; substance use disorder treatment; young adults.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Massachusetts / epidemiology
  • Qualitative Research
  • Safety-net Providers
  • Substance-Related Disorders* / epidemiology
  • Substance-Related Disorders* / psychology
  • Substance-Related Disorders* / therapy
  • Young Adult