Health professionals are growing increasingly concerned about the deteriorating mental health caused by the pandemic, warning that the prevalence of this mental health crisis should be handled as an immediate priority.

In June, rates of anxiety and depression in the United States were roughly three to four times higher than those reported in 2019. According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40.9% of adults reported struggles with at least one “adverse mental or behavioral health condition” associated with prolonged isolation. In particular, the group with the highest percentages of symptoms for anxiety and depression were among young adults, defined as ages 18 to 24, with 62.9% reported experiencing either or both. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression, also known as major depressive disorder and clinical depression, is a severe mood disorder that is characterized by a persistent depressed mood that limits one’s ability to carry out daily activities. Although related to depression, anxiety disorders are identified by strong feelings of worry and fear that can be detrimental if left untreated. 

In the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 17.3 million adults in the United States reported experiencing at least one major depressive episode, with the highest percentage among individuals aged 18 to 25.  Another 2017 study conducted by the Harvard Medical School showed an estimated 19.1% of US adults reported dealing with an anxiety disorder in the past year. Of the many factors that negatively affect mental health, the stress and loneliness of social isolation were two of the main stressors that could result in depression and anxiety.

In the face of curfews, evictions, school closures and permanently shuttered businesses, some people have begun to accept this new normal, using new coping methods to deal with the unprecedented loss and stress of the pandemic. Behind this collective stress and trauma is the concern of how these potential long-term consequences created by the pandemic will affect young adults. 

Of the adults surveyed in the national sample, more than 10% of respondents answered “yes” when asked whether they had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days prior to the survey. Within this sample, certain groups such as unpaid caregivers, essential workers, racial minorities and young adults responded “yes” at a higher percentage. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only heightened physical health concerns but also been detrimental to preserving mental health. Now, health experts fear that the drastic difference in how the pandemic affects young adults may have a developmental impact.

“It has wreaked havoc on their lives,” said Dr. Rebekah Fenton, a pediatrician and adolescent medicine fellow at The Potocsnak Family Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Lurie Children’s Hospital at Northwestern University, “Pre-pandemic, adolescents’ mental health issues were already a concern.” 

According to a recent study, the pandemic has exacerbated known risk factors for mental health disorders such as life disruption, fear of illness and fear of negative economic effects. Coupled with unprecedented stress and uncertainty about their personal future, this could increase the likelihood of young adults developing acute stress disorder, adjustment disorders and grief that may persist after the pandemic. 

Acute stress disorder (ASD) is a trauma-related disorder that develops within the first month after a traumatic event. The posttraumatic symptoms of ASD can be extremely distressing, such as flashbacks, nightmares, dissociation and anxiety, which could culminate in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) if they persisted after the first month.

In response to this data, health experts suggest that people, whether it be family members or friends, who are concerned about a young adult or adolescent should check in with them, ask them how they are doing, and not be afraid to ask about their mental health or wellbeing. 

For young adults, this is the age when they are still “figuring things out” as they go, said Dr. Betty Lai, an assistant professor in Counseling, Developmental and Educational Psychology in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College. 

With the pandemic shifting several long-term aspects of people’s lives, experts say that one of the best ways to support someone who might be struggling is to ask them.

“Listen and let them know there is no right way to act or feel right now,” Fenton said. “It is essential that we see the struggles they are facing and work collectively to mitigate them.”

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If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, the following organizations can help:

Call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) available 24/7, or chat online, if you are having thoughts of suicide.  

The Crisis Text Line is available 24/7 and provides confidential support by people in crisis with a crisis counselor when you text “HOME” to 741741.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration maintains a confidential 24/7 helpline for individuals facing mental and/or substance use disorders at 1-800-662-4357 (HELP).

Additional resources can be found at the NIH Mental Health Information page.

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