Loneliness can be a risk factor in a range of health issues, including depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and domestic abuse. All problems that are unsurprisingly increasing as we continue to remain isolated during the pandemic. However it would appear that one demographic is feeling the effects of isolation more than others. A CDC online survey indicates that young people between the ages of 18-24 are more likely to suffer mental health problems during the pandemic than any age group.
According to this survey, 63% of young people are suffering significant symptoms of anxiety or depression. Nearly a quarter of respondents reported that they had started or increased their abuse of substances, including alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs, to cope with their emotions.Their experiences during the pandemic put them at risk of developing Covid-19 related PTSD. This is a general problem developing throughout society but felt acutely by young adults. This data quantifies an alarming trend that we have seen emerge anecdotally, that the pandemic will have a long lasting impact on the mental health of young people.
One of the authors of the study, Mark Czeisler is hoping to conduct further research into why this particular demographic is so affected. He is currently looking into the extent in which people can tolerate uncertainty, or “the ability to accept the unknown, because now there are so many questions, especially for young people, about relative risk, duration of the pandemic and what their futures will look like.”
For young people who are navigating choices about higher education, their careers, building relationships or deciding when to start a family, the uncertainty of the pandemic can add pressure to already stressful decisions. They may feel like their options are restricted or like their lives are on an endless pause during a critical developmental stage. Teenage and young adult brains are wired for new experiences and that developmental need is not being met. These stressors are in addition to the anxiety we all feel about our health and the health of our loved ones.
Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist and senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education helped lead a study conducted last October by researchers at Making Care Common which further reinforced the results of the CDC survey. The study highlighted the rising trend in loneliness among young adults compared to the elderly. As discussed, loneliness is at the root of many mental health Issues. In a national survey, of approximately 950 Americans, 36 percent reported feeling lonely “frequently” or “almost all the time” in the past four weeks. Sixty-one percent of the respondents aged 18 to 25 reported high levels of loneliness.
Weissbourd suggests that young adults’ loneliness may be caused by the transition between “inherited families [and] chosen families”— friends who share a strong emotional bond may be unavailable to young adults when they are locked down with their family members at home. A 2016 report published in the journal Pediatric Clinics of North America cited research that found one-third of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth experienced parental rejection due to their sexual orientation. For this and other reasons, many people in LGBTQ community form “chosen families”. Since chosen families often don’t live together, many have been unable to see each other during the pandemic. Like others they may have lost close ones to Covid-19 and they aren’t able to access the in person support of their communities to grieve. Even those who have not been outright rejected by their “inherited families” may feel a disconnect between their families personal beliefs and their own and are therefore less likely to reach out to them for emotional support.
Students in college may struggle with anxiety and lack social support if they are unable to return home to their families and may struggle to make new connections during the pandemic like they might normally do in classes at school. Meaningful relationships act as critical guardrails against loneliness and the more lonely young adults feel, the greater the toll on their mental wellbeing. We cannot underestimate the impact of peer support on mental health during this time.
The Making Care Common study highlighted how emotions like loneliness are further intensified when questions about the reliability of relationships surface. The survey showed that those who reported higher feelings of loneliness, felt that they reached out and listened to people more often, and such efforts were not reciprocated from the other end – causing them to feel as if no one “genuinely cared” about them. Friendships have also been strained and fractured over differing opinions about what is considered “safe” during the pandemic. This could result in reduced social support networks even after the pandemic is over.
With the long stretches of time spent away from friends and family, young adults tend to use social media as an outlet and form of connectivity with the world around them. Connections on social media can sometimes create solidarity and help build a support system. Yet as we are well aware, dialogues on social media can quickly turn toxic and trigger negative emotions
Weissbourd and his team argue that tackling loneliness and associated mental health issues would require a “robust social infrastructure” and suggests that key social and cultural institutions including workplaces, schools and colleges, and religious and secular community organizations, can be far more intentional and systematic about connecting us to each other through events and initiatives. These institutions can also encourage and support the behaviors and skills needed in caring for those who are lonely. Outside of these systems, we can also look to our health systems to address these issues. Doctors can incorporate questions about loneliness in annual physical checkups, and later help connect those struggling to treatment, resources, and support groups.
Often loneliness is stigmatized which undermines its severity. Public education campaigns can have a huge impact on removing and alleviating the stigma of loneliness. An Australian suicide prevention organization runs a national annual “R U OK? Day” with the goal of encouraging Australians to meaningfully connect with the people around them and start a conversation with anyone who may be struggling with life. Participants who were exposed to the R U OK? Day campaign were up to six times more likely to reach out to someone who might be experiencing personal difficulties compared to those not exposed to the campaign. A similar program could be adopted in the U.S. for loneliness and other mental health issues.
Weissbourd and his team suggest a similar approach encouraging everyone to reach out and check in on the young people around them—a simple hello can have a major impact on how young adults feel during these unpredictable times.