In a new paper sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation, Jeffrey Arnett, PhD, details the disproportionate and enduring impact of COVID-19 on the mental wellbeing of “emerging adults.” Arnett, a senior research scholar at Clark University, is a uniquely appropriate author for the paper, as he coined the term “emerging adults” over 20 years ago to describe young people in their twenties who exist in the “space between adolescence and young adulthood.” Arnett is also the executive director of the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood (SSEA), and author of Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties.

In The Mental Health Effects of COVID-19- A Continuing Crisis, Especially for Emerging Adults ages 18-29, Arnett examined national data from before and during the COVID-19 pandemic from sources such as the CDC, the National Center for Health Statistics, the U.S. Bureau of the Census, the National Opinion Research Center, and the Pew Research Center, as well as numerous longitudinal studies from the literature.  His research showed that psychological distress was consistently higher for young adults ages 18-29 than all older age groups from March 2020 to September 2022, despite that group being at lowest risk physically from the disease.

“You would think that it would be the older people who would be the most affected in their mental health, because they were the most at risk for hospitalization and death during the pandemic, and they still are,” said Arnett in a June interview for the Mary Christie Institute’s podcast, the Quadcast. “It's actually just the opposite. The oldest Americans are the ones who are least likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression. Meanwhile, the emerging adults, the 18- to 29-year-olds, were the most affected in terms of their mental health.”

While Arnett said he was initially surprised by the data, he posited a few justifications in the report, starting with the outsize influence of the pandemic’s disruption on people in the midst of an intense developmental period.  While life disruptions were not unique to the age group, Arnett said, “from age 18 to 29, you're trying to build the structure of an adult life. That's the age where most people are getting the education that's going to form the basis of a long-term occupation or profession, when people are moving out of their parents’ household, learning how to function as an adult on their own. It's the age when people are having romantic relationships, thinking about what they want in a partner. And suddenly, all of this is blown up.”

Jeffrey Arnett

In the report, Arnett pointed out that this population experienced disruptions or changes to the five features distinctive to the emerging adulthood life stage: identity explorations, during which they explore who they are, “trying out various possible futures;” instability, which was greatly exacerbated by the pandemic; self-focus (specifically in relation to parental ties waning), which veered into loneliness when they were cut off from their friends; feeling in between childhood and adulthood, which was extended during this time period; and optimism and high hopes about future possibilities, which were dimmed by the circumstances surrounding the pandemic.

“You would think that it would be older people who would be the most affected in their mental health, because they were the most at risk for hospitalization and death during the pandemic but it’s actually just the opposite.”

But, while there are clear, reasonable causes for the intense reaction to the initial disruption of the pandemic by emerging adults, Arnett said he was mystified that their rates of anxiety and depression have remained so high. In the paper, he noted that the rates of anxiety and depression for emerging adults remained as high in early 2023 as at the peak of the pandemic before vaccines were available–nearly 40% for anxiety disorder and nearly 35% for depression. (In fact, symptoms have remained above pre-pandemic levels for all adult age groups.) That pattern is continuing even now as the pandemic has waned, the report states. “Even after life has returned to normal in most ways, rates of anxiety and depression are nearly as high as they were at the peak of the pandemic. That was shocking,” he said. “Why do people still feel so bad even though life appears to have gone back to normal in so many ways?” he continued.

The report also highlights subgroups of emerging adults that have disproportionately borne the brunt of the pandemic from a mental wellbeing perspective: women and Asian Americans. Even though young women’s rates of depression and anxiety were already higher than young men before the pandemic, the report states, the gap between them has grown since the pandemic began. Arnett noted that this follows a long-standing pattern in mental health research, in which females report worse mental health outcomes across the spectrum. However, he called the widening of the difference “striking.”

Disturbingly, the pandemic triggered a racist backlash against Asian Americans, which may account for their disproportionate worsening of mental health. In addition to higher rates of mental health issues, most Asian Americans also reported believing that violence against their ethnic group is increasing; almost three quarters said they worry sometimes, almost every day, or every day that they might be threatened or attacked due to their ethnicity.

The paper outlines five recommendations for addressing the current mental health crisis and preparing for the next pandemic. Arnett recommends: reforming the mental health delivery system; expanding and improving teletherapy services; creating a website of resources for parents of emerging adults; improving online learning techniques; and holding a national conference of practitioners and policymakers at colleges and universities that examines which policies and programs were effective and which were not. He also recommends further examination into the phenomenon of why these levels of distress are not subsiding for emerging adults, including in-depth qualitative research with the young people themselves. 

“We need to urgently go forward with interviewing people, not just survey data, not just ‘tell me on a scale of one to five how anxious you feel or how depressed you feel,’ but ‘tell me in your own words why you're still distressed.’”