The mental health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are just beginning to be understood. According to early studies, young adults feel the impact of social isolation and loneliness more than other age groups.
For many, the pandemic derailed their hopes and plans during a critical transition into adulthood. Lost wages, less time with friends, missing significant events, and the uncertainty of the future all contribute to widespread distress.
Increasing Rates of Mental Health Disorders
In a national online survey, 80 percent of young adult participants reported significant depressive symptoms. In addition, 61 percent reported moderate or severe anxiety. Many also reported harmful levels of drinking (30 percent), binge drinking (44 percent), and drug use (22 percent).
The survey took place in April and May 2020. It involved 1,000 participants, ages 18 to 35, with the average age being 28. Nearly half of the participants reported a high level of loneliness. Most of those who reported more loneliness also noted an increase in depression, anxiety, drinking, and drug use.
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This survey echoes findings from other research conducted during the pandemic. In a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, more than 40 percent of young adults reported anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, suicidality, or another behavioral health issue. Compared to the same time in 2019, the prevalence of mental health symptoms was two to four times higher among young adults during the pandemic.
The researchers pointed to several factors that could explain the increase, including:
- Excessive time spent on screens and technology
- Fear of getting sick
- Social isolation from spending more time indoors, away from friends and extended family
- Reduction in exercise
- Changed school, work, and sleep schedules
- Missing developmental milestones like school events and graduations
Experts anticipate the mental health fallout for young adults will continue, or possibly intensify, the longer the pandemic goes on. Surveys have been administered repeatedly throughout the pandemic, and the distress has stayed constant rather than declining.
The Overlap Between Depression and Substance Abuse
When rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses increase, substance abuse tends to increase as well. About half of people with a mental health disorder will also deal with substance abuse, often in an effort to cope with emotional pain and other mental health symptoms.
If a young adult is struggling with depression, anxiety, or another mental health concern, loved ones and treatment professionals should be on the lookout for signs of drug or alcohol abuse. These may include abandoning long-time friends, a change in appearance, sleep, or appetite, and loss of interest in activities they usually enjoy, among others.
It’s important to know if a young person is dealing with a dual diagnosis (both substance abuse and a mental health disorder) because they need specialized treatment. Integrated dual diagnosis treatment is most effective because it addresses both issues at the same time.
How to Help a Young Adult With Depression
Research tells us young people are feeling alone and disconnected right now. They need to feel cared for and heard by their loved ones, and to know their feelings are valid. Sharing your own feelings during the pandemic and actively listening can help them feel more comfortable opening up.
Spend Time as a Family
Having fun together through family dinners, game nights or other activities can help young people feel connected.
Even though schedules have become more flexible during the pandemic, young people still need structure in their days. Set aside time for exercise, relaxation, socializing by phone or online, sleep and activities that they’re passionate about, whether that’s art, music, sports or something else. A sense of predictability can help young adults manage depression symptoms and stay motivated.
Sadness and worry are normal, but when they make it hard for a young adult to function, sleep or do normal activities, help is needed. Professional counseling and treatment can help young adults learn to manage their symptoms.
Treatment Works: The Earlier the Better
If you recognize signs of a problem, such as changes in sleep or appetite, hopelessness, anger, or physical complaints like headaches or stomachaches, early intervention makes healing easier. If in-person treatment isn’t an option, there are online support groups, telehealth appointments, and virtual therapy sessions available during the pandemic.
Most importantly, young adults need to know they aren’t alone. Mental health struggles are widespread, especially among young people during the COVID-19 pandemic, and help is available.