How Social Distancing Continues to Affect Young Adults
March 12, 2021
Image courtesy of Anna Shvets via Pexels.
We tend to toss the phrase “young adults” around in a way that demeans the age category they represent, forgetting that they are at a crucial point in their lives where their potential is finally recognizable and actionable, but they are in need of guidance and support in a way that balances their need for more independence with their inexperience. Covid-19 has hit that sore spot in a major way-- their mental and emotional health.
Young adults are at a crucial point in their lives where their peer networks are key to developing their resiliency skills, validation, and emotional support. In this article, we’ll take a look at:
- The ways in which Covid-19 has specifically affected young adults through social distancing
- What can we do about it
- When professional help might be needed
How has social distancing affected our young adults?
Even pre-pandemic, the mental health of our young adults was tenuous at best. Around 65% of college students struggled with anxiety, 30% or more with mental health issues, and at least 10% (probably more) had suicidal thoughts. So in fact, it would not be exaggerating in the least to say that pre-Covid young adult mental health was a crisis our nation was not properly allocating attention or resources to fix.
Now that we’re smack dab in the middle of a global pandemic, the restrictions and precautions necessary to protect us are damaging the mental health of everyone, especially our young adults. The main culprit: social distancing and isolation.
Just when our young adults just heading out of high school or in college are at a vulnerable time in their mental health, Covid-19 ripped away one of their most important support systems by forcing everyone to stay apart. With young adults mostly at home now-- schools are encouraging remote learning whenever possible-- families see them more than anyone else, and so behaviors that might have been hidden before are now apparent. Those young adults who did make it to campus don’t have roommates or or the normal college social life.
86% of parents reported in a recent study that they’d noticed worrisome behavior changes, ranging from reduced physical activity to an inability to concentrate. Other surveys demonstrate rises in anxiety and depression, which is deeply concerning considering the pre-Covid statistics. Still others report a sharp rise in suicidal thoughts.
All over the map, young adults are reporting mental health issues directly related to lack of social interaction and the expected life structure for their age group. 560,000 less students registered for classes for Fall 2020 than Fall 2019-- it’s unclear what the exact causes of that massive drop in enrollment are, but it’s fair to assume that mental health issues play at least some part. Finances are probably another big drive, as student loan debt is a massive stressor-- the point being that there is no one single cause, but that evaluating the level of stress and distress that they can handle is probably playing a part in enrollment drops. (Feel free to comment on this below.)
What can we do about it?
Those young adults who are enrolled in schools generally have at least some access to mental health resources via a guidance counselor, school counselor, or school nurse. That said, lower enrollment often means budget-tightening, and while the pandemic has made school more aware of the need for mental health resources to be a budget priority, it may not shake out that way in the end. Other schools-- especially high schools in poor areas-- may already have needed to reduce or axe their mental health resources entirely pre-Covid due to budget and funding cuts.
So what else can we do, when we really shouldn’t break the lockdown/social-distancing rules for the physical safety of our young adults and the people around them?
The first and foremost, healthy ways to deal with stress start primarily with self-care. Self-care is a skill that everyone must develop, but is often mistaken for pampering oneself with bath bombs, shower steamers, candles, crystals, music and facials. Those are all well and fine, but the true meaning of self-care is brought to its rawest state here in the pandemic: making yourself a priority in physical and mental health.
It includes things like paying honest attention to your feelings, making space for them, and figuring out what they are and from where they are stemming. On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), where are you today and why? Are you eating as best you can for your nutritional needs and avoiding alcohol and other “negative self-medications?” Have you moved today? Get up off the couch or out of bed and take 15 minutes-- that’s less time than it takes to pick a movie to watch-- and walk around the block, dance to a few songs, stretch gently, or do a few squats and bicep curls (just put a 16 oz can in each hand-- you’ve got that in your pantry, right?). Use what you have and do what you can-- including taking any prescriptions correctly and on time.
Sleep is a huge issue that even folks not struggling with mental health are facing right now. The causes range from lack of exercise to anxious running thoughts to bad habits but it is important to slowly work yourself into a regular sleep pattern. Try to get that 6-8 hours of sleep in one go, but if you can’t, a 10-15 minute power nap is just fine (as long as it’s not replacing your exercise time). Here’s something else to consider-- when do you sleep best? There are apps that help with that. Lack of sleep can exacerbate-- or even cause-- anxiety and depression symptoms, so it’s important to try and go to sleep and wake up at around the same time every single day. Our human brains love patterns and routine, so following a sleep schedule as best you can (and resisting the urge to sleep in on days off) ensures that the quality of sleep you get is at its best.
Here’s another big one-- take the time to relax and do activities that you enjoy, or even ones you haven’t tried in a long time or have never tried before. You might be sick of online learning, but there are plenty of virtual classes from both big and small businesses for any kind of activity, and YouTube is brimming with tutorials. Painting, sewing, cooking, writing, quilting, dancing, singing-- these and more are great ways to express yourself, relax, and engage in an activity that brings you joy.
Even though Zoom fatigue is a real thing, finding a way to communicate in a way that is as close to face-to-face as possible is still recommended. Make a Zoom or Skype date with friends to make cookies or craft together. If you’re in school or wanting to keep your academic skills sharp, start an online study buddy group! If you’re a reader, join or start your own virtual book club or put a different twist on it and make Zoom dates to read books to each other.
Don’t skip life events, either. Make them virtual or drive-by, or quiet at home, but don’t let them go unrecognized. Many of us will have another birthday in lockdown or isolation this year, and another class will probably graduate virtually. Reach out and acknowledge these events in special ways-- send flowers or fruit baskets, do a contactless drop off of a present, or mask up and go for a socially-distanced walk in a local park. Make a handmade card or write an old-fashioned letter and mail it, because who doesn’t like getting actual mail instead of junky sales fliers!?
If you’re a young adult on your own at this time, the CDC has a Care-for-Yourself pamphlet you can download and follow.
When to get professional help, and what is available
NOTE: You do not need to be “this bad” to seek professional help-- your level of “I need help” is different from everyone else’s. There is no hard reason why anyone who “isn’t that bad” shouldn’t seek professional help if they think it would help them.
When do symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression cross the line into territory where you absolutely need professional help?
- When they impede your ability to live
- When they affect the quality of your life
- When they start to affect your job
- When they start to affect your relationships with others
- If you feel like people are better off without you
- If you no longer see the point of “hanging around” or living
- If you feel numb or begin to disassociate
- When you alter your life and/or behaviors (ex: stop doing things you love)
- When you use food or substances to cope
This list is not exhaustive. These are just some of the more worrisome things to watch out for that demand immediate action.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, take immediate action and call the numbers below:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for English, 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish or chat online
Veteren’s Crisis Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or chat online or text 8388255
The Trevor Project (LGTBQ+): (866) 488-7386
Crisis Text Line: Text START to 741-741
The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender National Hotline: (888) 843-4564
The GLBT National Youth Talkline (youth serving youth through age 25): (800) 246-7743
You are loved, needed, and wanted in this world. We’d rather hear your story than attend your funeral.
Other ways to get help:
- Talk to your PCP (if you have one) or school nurse about needing resources
- School guidance counselor or psychologist
- Sliding scale clinics in your area
- Psychologist or psychiatrist
- Social worker
- Mental health care provider or professional
Treatments may vary from prescriptions to talk therapy to alternative methods. Remain open-minded about the process, and have patience. But most of all, remember that you are worth the investment and deserve to have good mental and emotional health, and this is an important part of that.
If you have resources or advice you’d like to share, tell us in the comments below. Be safe out there, and remember:
We’re rooting for you!