By Katelyn Moore, Tridiuum Research
The COVID-19 pandemic had a detrimental effect on mental health, bringing about uncertainty and instability for many. Emerging adults — those between the ages of 18 and 25 — remain at higher risk for mental health issues simply because of where they are in their psychological development.
Emerging adults do not see themselves entirely as adults nor entirely adolescents. They’re not quite sure what to call themselves because they have left adolescence but have not yet entered full adulthood. There is no name for this growth period, so they feel as though they are in-between. Thus begins the age of identity exploration and self-focus.
The majority of identity exploration centers on relation to peers. Emerging adults compare themselves to those immediately around them in their age group. They no longer rely on their parents to tell them how to act, but often turn to the internet to connect to others in the same life stage.
This reliance on digital connection was exacerbated by the social distancing regulations in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Emerging adults no longer had the possibility of face-to-face exposure to their peers of different values in classrooms and social situations. Emerging adults exploring their identity in the world were now faced with the isolation and uncertainty of a global pandemic.
Impact of social isolation on emerging adults
Emerging adults grew up with digital access to information at any given moment. In 2021, 99 percent of internet users in the US were age 18-29. Since emerging adulthood is still ambiguously defined, these statistical sources do not clearly delineate where emerging adults fit in the spectrum of internet use.
However, it’s clear that a large portion of internet traffic originates from emerging adults. According to the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of those age 18-29 use social media. Since emerging adults rely on self-identification through reference to others of the same age, the pandemic likely heightened their reliance on social media cues.
In a SAMHSA study, 8.6 percent of emerging adults exhibited at least one serious mental illness, defined as “having a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder.” In an NIH survey, the percentage of adults aged 18-25 who received treatment for any mental illness was 38.9 percent, compared to 45.8 percent of adults age 26-49.
Tridiuum has a unique capability to track these trends by gathering real time assessment data. In 2021, Tridiuum data gathered via self-reported assessments has shown that 80.7 percent of emerging adults seeking treatment within the first three months of 2021 screened positive for depression (n = 140), compared to 72.3 percent of adults age 26+ (n = 585).
This data also has shown that 71.9 percent of emerging adults (n = 139) have screened positive for anxiety and 37.4 percent (n = 139) screened positive for PTSD (n = 139), compared to 60.6 percent (n = 584) and 28.8 percent (n = 584) of adults age 26+, respectively.
A comparison of adults aged 26+ and emerging adults revealed a significant difference between emerging adults and the 26+ group regarding symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. Emerging adults also reported more often that they weren’t managing their day-to-day life very well. Most concerning was that emerging adults reported suicidal ideation more often than the 26+ group.
Although the data presented here was collected from adults already seeking behavioral health treatment, it follows a trend. There are more emerging adults reporting depression, anxiety, and PTSD than their older counterparts.
Possible reasons for mental health deterioration with emerging adults
Why aren’t emerging adults getting along as emotionally well as older age groups?
There are many possible answers to this question. Obviously, COVID-19 did not solely affect this population, but it seems as if it may have impacted them more. Emerging adults were particularly vulnerable to mental health deterioration during the first year or so of the pandemic era because of their natural stage of psychological development combined with the isolation of social distancing and their disproportionate exposure to the internet.
Overexposure to the internet could be a key contributor to emerging adults’ mental health problems. When society defaulted even more toward digitally enabled relationships, bad news seemed nearly impossible to ignore as daily or even hourly notifications commanded attention on the smartphones and laptops that became emerging adults’ primary communication devices for friendships, school, family, and work.
Digital algorithms built into websites and apps track usage and viewing activity, creating what is known as a filter bubble. The algorithms can perpetuate a certain message, topic, or perspective by surfacing similar content for users over and over again.
More research needed for emerging adults
The emerging adult age group is a newly defined life stage in developmental psychology, and therefore there is little research on it. Emerging adults are typically grouped into the category of adults over age 18. In doing this kind of grouping, valuable data nuances are lost.
In the future, behavioral health treatments should be tailored for the specific needs of emerging adults with more tech-friendly treatment options. Research on emerging adults could inform measurement-based care to tailor it to the specific needs of this age group.
Because they already value information and data, they may be more willing participants in treatment that’s informed by quantified measures. If behavioral health providers begin putting more focus on this age group and capture measurement-based outcomes, it may start a new age of behavioral well-being for emerging adults.