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A Mental Health Crisis in Emerging Adults

Is the pandemic panic over yet?

Key points

  • Emerging adults have had a greater increase in mental health symptoms than any other age group.
  • Because of inequities at multiple levels, marginalized youth may be most at risk for poor post-COVID-19 outcomes.
  • Access to mental health services, physical activity, mindfulness and gratitude practices, and music and laughter may help.

The COVID-19 pandemic may be turning endemic, but mental health professionals are alarmed about a mental health crisis developing for young adults. The initial burden of social, school, and work restrictions created anxiety and depression amongst all age groups, but emerging adults have the additional burden of giving up precious time in their prime years, missing traditional milestones, and losing economic opportunities and vital relationships, all during a developmental period associated with increased mental health symptoms and risk behaviors even during the best of times (see “The Transition From Adolescence to Adulthood”).

Youth with adverse family environments may have succumbed to increased family exposure with little access to supportive outlets during the shutdown. Sutin and colleagues reported that emerging adults showed disrupted personality development compared to other age groups as demonstrated by increased neuroticism and decreased agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Prevalence of Mental Health Issues

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report revealed that one in four emerging adults ages 18 to 24 had considered suicide within the past month and a similar percentage started or increased substance use because of the pandemic. Almost three-quarters of survey respondents in this age group reported having one or more mental health symptoms, more than any other age group.

According to an Active Minds Survey of more than 2,000 college students regarding the impact of the pandemic on their mental health, more than 80 percent reported loneliness and isolation, disappointment and sadness, and stress and anxiety. The American Psychology Association reported that adolescents and emerging adults were the hardest hit by the pandemic in terms of mental health outcomes. The pandemic has also resulted in decreased access to mental health services, despite the proliferation of telehealth.

Marginalized Youth

Marginalized youth are likely to be even more vulnerable to this mental health crisis because of systemic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal bias and discrimination. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Black and Latinx youth are less likely to receive mental health treatment for depression and anxiety than their white peers. Over the last two decades, rates of suicide have risen among Black youth more than any other ethnic group according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The Trevor Project reports that nearly half of sexual- and gender-minority youth seriously considered suicide in 2021. Clearly, identification and treatment of mental health symptoms among marginalized youth must be a public health priority.

What to do?

  1. Increase access to mental health prevention and treatment services, both traditional and telehealth. Social media influences can be used for good as outreach mechanisms for mental health awareness. Mental health services in school settings is important, but integrating mental health in the workplace is also needed for emerging adults who are not college bound.
  2. As a young person, take time to step back and note what you have been through. These are unprecedented times, and recognizing that mental health symptoms are a normal reaction to the global trauma of the last few years may help.
  3. Meditation, deep breathing, and gratitude practices have a strong evidence base for improving anxiety, panic, and overall well-being.
  4. Physical activity also has a strong evidence base for reducing mental health symptoms and improving cognition.
  5. Spend time outdoors. Not only does this reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, but the fresh air and vitamin D also have tremendous benefits.
  6. Take a break from social media and remind yourself how to interact in person—it might take practice after all the isolation.
  7. Remember the expression, “Laughter is the best medicine.” The research suggests "fake it 'til you make it," as even forced laughter becomes funny and can improve mood.
  8. Listen to music and dance for both physical and mental health benefits.


A poem by an emerging adult in a post-COVID world (not copyrighted)

Yet My Body Has Never Been More Still

By Alex King (age 20)

I need to wake up for class

Yet my body has never been more still

I need to make breakfast

Yet my body has never been more still

I'm going to be late for class

Yet my body has never been more still

I want to smash my coffee cup on the ground and watch it shatter

Yet my body has never been more still

I sit at my computer

Yet my body has never been more still

My paper is due at midnight

Yet my body has never been more still

I want to go out

Yet my body has never been more still

I want friends

Yet my body has never been more still

I want to live

Yet my body has never been more still

I need to live

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