The Relationship Between Failure to Launch and Addiction

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A peculiar phenomenon, dubbed “failure to launch syndrome”, has attracted the attention of mental health professionals in recent years. Young adults increasingly face a specific set of hardships, which prevents them from embracing adulthood and thriving. Most worryingly, this condition also relates to substance use and addiction in a rather complex way. At Archstone Behavioral Health, this phenomenon has reached our Lantana Florida treatment center before. Every time, it has required a unique approach to treatment to best address. As such, we believe the relationship between failure to launch and addiction deserves some due exploration.

If you or your loved ones suspect failure to launch applies to you, please read on.

What is failure to launch, or the “failure to launch syndrome”?

Initially, let us clarify that “failure to launch syndrome” is not a true diagnosis. It’s a colloquial term, which can often find its way into medical or mental health discourse. It is not, however, an officially recognized or established syndrome.

That said, it often describes a very real phenomenon and is receiving due attention from mental health professionals. The fact it doesn’t yet constitute a proper diagnosis does not mean it may not become one in due time. It accurately communicates a notable set of circumstances, as well – so professionals should not dismiss the term outright.

A young Asian woman sitting on a yellow sofa with a sad expression.
“Failure to launch” may not describe a syndrome per se, but it does reflect a very real phenomenon young adults face.

In brief, “failure to launch syndrome” describes the inability to properly “launch” one’s life, from adolescence to adulthood. It describes young adults who are facing educational, employment, or financial troubles, which prevent them from thriving as young adults. Such individuals will typically stay with their parents, and often isolate themselves from society or face emotional distress. In turn, staying at home can worsen these symptoms, prevent the individual’s growth, and cause further complications.

This condition may also be called “Peter Pan syndrome”, particularly in the US. In Japan, a similar condition goes by the name hikikomori – although that condition describes a prolonged failure to launch.

In all cases, you may already see the relationship between failure to launch and addiction. Let us delve deeper, however, to help explain this peculiar and notable connection.

Common symptoms of failure to launch

This “syndrome” will express itself in a few different ways. The term describes the condition rather loosely, so it doesn’t have universal symptoms identifying it.

Initially, the individual will remain at home. They will appear demotivated, hopeless, or overwhelmed by adulthood. With that foundation, symptoms can include:

  • Isolation and failure or unwillingness to maintain bonds and relationships
  • Social anxiety
  • General apathy and indifference
  • Lack of age-appropriate emotional control
  • Poor self-care and hygiene
  • Poor academic performance
  • Frequent or persistent unemployment
  • Low self-sufficiency
  • Few aspirations or goals

Such symptoms, notably, can vary significantly. That’s because these circumstances may cause, or be caused by, such mental health disorders as anxiety and depression. In some cases, they can even be a direct product of such disorders as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

A depressed young man by the sea.
The symptoms of failure to launch can vary considerably, depending on existing mental health disorders, but typically include isolation.

The typical profile of failure to launch

For a concrete example, here we can cite Dr. Eli R. Lebowitz’s composite profile of the condition:

“Ivan was a 23-year-old man living at home with his parents since attending a single semester of college at 18 years of age. Ivan had a history of social and separation anxiety and was currently taking fluoxetine 20 mg daily. He had twice begun therapy, only to stop after 2 to 3 sessions.”

The relationship between failure to launch and addiction should start becoming clear here. Individuals with such conditions which cause isolation and seclusion may often resort to substance use. Dr. Lebowitz continues:

Ivan had severed most social ties and spent most of his time in his room, often sleeping during the day. Ivan’s parents provided lodging and services, including laundry, utilities, and Internet access, gave him money for expenses, and dealt with any necessary interactions with the outside world. They refrained from inviting guests to the home because this invariably distressed Ivan.”

This, Dr. Lebowitz argues, constitutes the “dependency trap”; where the behaviors of the parents reinforce the child’s and vice versa.

“Attempts to deny Ivan services or accommodations had backfired when he became angry and distraught. On one occasion he had even become physically aggressive, out-of-character behavior for which he later apologized. Ivan’s parents felt trapped and believed that all their actions only made things worse. Ivan also expressed his disappointment with life and occasionally made suicidal statements.”

Ivan’s case is not unique, or as uncommon as it may seem. Suicidal ideation is, of course, an extreme symptom, but his general condition is not.

A depressed young man sitting on a bench as he holds his head in his hands.
It is not uncommon for failure to launch to ignite depression, anxiety, and related mental health disorders.

Common causes of failure to launch

Causes can vary considerably, and experts remain unsure. Psychology Today consolidates the main factor as “diminishing job opportunities, especially for young people without post-high-school education”. By itself, this may not explain the relationship between failure to launch and addiction, but unemployment is indeed linked to higher substance use rates.

In addition, they argue that parents’ financial support can encourage passivity and decrease motivation:

“Paradoxically, that [more Millennials are experiencing increased anxiety and decreased resilience] may be the result of parents’ overindulgence and excessive emotional support. Many of these young people may have never sufficiently learned to face the challenges of life alone, having been deprived of experience in facing and dealing with difficult situations.”

Scientific American remains uncertain as well, noting the complexity of the matter:

“Why is this happening? Ask a dozen experts, and you’ll get a dozen answers: the economy, the number and kind of jobs available, an unwillingness to take on education debt that can’t be paid off by lower-level jobs, the decline of rites of passage to adulthood, or the falling frequency of marriage.”

In either case, the condition, unfortunately, fuels itself. The individual enters a cycle of adverse conditions, which can often worsen the initial causes – as Dr. Lebowitz notes:

These individuals suffer stigma for their “failure to launch” (FTL) and are often perceived as overly pampered and lazy, and their parents are commonly ridiculed for being too indulgent. In fact, young people struggling to function independently and overwhelmed by the demands of adulthood frequently suffer shame and alienation, as same-aged peers accumulate accomplishments while they accrue increasing disability.”

A depressed young man lying in bed with a rainbow-colored light shining on his face.
As time goes on and failure to launch remains unaddressed, shame and alienation may accumulate and lead to substance use.

The relationship between failure to launch and addiction

With the above in mind, then, failure to launch can indeed lead to substance abuse. This is not simply because failure to launch can overlap with mental health disorders, but largely because of its nature. Three distinct factors bear noting here.

Failure to launch, mental health disorders, and addiction

Initially, mental health disorders overlap with substance use quite considerably. To illustrate this, consider NIDA’s findings:

  • In 7.7 million adults, mental health disorders and substance use disorders (SUDs) co-occur.
  • Of the 20.3 million adults with substance use disorders, 9% also had mental illnesses.
  • Among the 42.1 million adults with mental illness, 2% also had substance use disorders.

Professionals dub this phenomenon “dual diagnosis”, and it presents difficult circumstances as far as treatment goes. In such cases, it’s unclear whether mental health disorders cause substance use or vice versa, but one fuels the other.

In much the same way, “failure to launch syndrome” constitutes a dual diagnosis itself. It can cause mental health disorders or be caused by ones, but one still exacerbates the other.

Behavioral health and addiction

In addition to mental health disorders, or outside of them, failure to launch also entails behavioral health problems. As we discussed above, those can include poor hygiene, low drive to succeed and thrive, social isolation, and other patterns. Such difficulties may not often lead to substance use, but they exacerbate existing issues.

In this sense, behavioral health is integral to the relationship between failure to launch and addiction. Persisting patterns of harmful thoughts and counterproductive behavior, such as anxiety and idleness, create the conditions for substance use. Even if they don’t, they can prevent the individual from breaking free of early use before it develops into dependence.

A distant photo of a depressed young man in front of a large screen.
An array of behavioral patterns can prove harmful to the individual and deprive them of the opportunity to break free and thrive.

Low self-efficacy and addiction

And finally, failure to launch can significantly reduce self-efficacy – which exacerbates substance use and dependence. This term we can describe simply as self-confidence, but the American Psychological Association (APA) defines it as follows:

“Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments. Self-efficacy reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one’s own motivation, behavior, and social environment. These cognitive self-evaluations influence all manner of human experience, including the goals for which people strive, the amount of energy expended toward goal achievement, and likelihood of attaining particular levels of behavioral performance.”

In the context of addiction, self-efficacy holds immense value and relevance. NCBI explains this as follows:

“Self-efficacy is involved in abstaining from numerous habitual behaviors, including smoking, using illicit substances, and excessive drinking. Researchers showed that among individuals who attempt to quit smoking, those individuals with higher self-efficacy scores have better outcomes […]One study […] found that abstainers had higher self-efficacy scores than persons who relapsed at a follow up assessment; other studies showed that higher self-efficacy scores upon discharge from a treatment center predicted later abstinence.”

As you can see, self-efficacy and addiction have a definite positive correlation. Low self-efficacy, driven by a failure to launch, cannot just lead to abstinence. It can also significantly affect treatment success rates and recovery outcomes, which can fuel failure to launch in turn.

A close-up of a young person’s hands featuring colorful tattoos.
Self-efficacy is notably valuable in addiction treatment, which failure to launch can inhibit.

Addressing the relationship between failure to launch and addiction in treatment

Having covered all of the above, you now likely have a firm grasp on the connection between failure to launch and substance use. Not only can the former lead to the latter – the two can coexist, as an essential dual diagnosis.

Beyond the theoreticals, however, if you’ve read thus far you likely care for the issue deeply. You may be seeking treatment for a loved one, or perhaps for yourself. If so, you should know how treatment should approach this condition with due care to ensure better outcomes.

As you examine your treatment provider candidates, we suggest you consider the following.

Dual diagnosis treatment

First, and perhaps most importantly, it is vital that your providers specifically cater to dual diagnosis cases. As discussed above, failure to launch will often entail underlying disorders alongside substance use.

Traditional drug addiction treatment without a keen focus on mental health does not suffice for such cases. In the simplest of terms, treating substance use without simultaneously treating underlying mental health disorders only addresses half the condition. An untreated mental health disorder that fuels addiction can immediately rekindle it post-treatment and lead to a relapse.

Medical professionals in blue scrub suits smiling at the camera.
Failure to launch will typically reveal dual diagnoses, which require specialized care to treat.

Behavioral health treatment

Beyond mental health disorders specifically, your treatment providers should offer extensive psychotherapy programs and options. Behavioral health, whether through self-efficacy or everyday attitudes toward life, plays a crucial part in the relationship between failure to launch and addiction.

For this reason, you should ensure your providers offer established, science-backed cognitive-behavioral therapy types like:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
  • Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)

Robust aftercare

And finally, your candidates should offer a robust aftercare program to help ensure better recovery outcomes. This is true for any kind of substance use, but is particularly important in cases of failure to launch.

Individuals under such conditions will typically have lower self-efficacy, as we saw above. They may struggle to socialize, have longstanding anxieties, and so on. Whether these are character traits, acquired mindsets, or the byproduct of mental health disorders, a solid aftercare program can help address them and solidify recovery.

A happy young woman in a green sweater during a psychotherapy session.
Continued psychotherapy and support, depending on the individual’s needs, can cement recovery and prevent relapse.

Archstone Behavioral Health is here for you

In summary, “failure to launch syndrome” describes a complex phenomenon that sees adolescents overwhelmed by adulthood. It is not an official syndrome, nor a proper diagnosis, but the phenomenon is indeed both real and complex.

The relationship between failure to launch and addiction is equally complex and worthy of exploration. Typically, young adults who experience it will face declining behavioral health or co-occurring mental health disorders, alongside poor social life. This set of circumstances can both lead to substance use and prevent breaking free from it.

At Archstone Behavioral Health, we have seen and treated combinations of failure to launch and addiction manifold. We grasp their complex relationship, and cater to both to achieve optimal recovery outcomes. If you or yours are struggling with such circumstances, please, feel free to contact us today.