The COVID-19 public health emergency may be over, but its impact on the mental health of adults ages 18 to 29 remains a pressing challenge, according to Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a developmental psychologist and senior research scholar at Clark University.
More than two decades ago, Arnett coined the term “emerging adulthood” to describe the age period from the late teens to the mid-20s. He has since conducted years of research around issues that have confronted these young adults, making him one of world’s leading authorities on the age group.
From the start of the pandemic through its peak, emerging adults experienced higher rates of distress than any other adult age group, according to Arnett’s review of government and scholarly data. His findings were published in a report commissioned and released by the Ruderman Family Foundation.
Emerging adults’ “identity explorations” were disrupted during “the crucial years when they were beginning to build a life for themselves in education, work, and love relationships,” Arnett explains.
“The personal optimism that is typical during this age period was jarred by the unprecedented dislocation of adapting to the pandemic,” he says, “and feeling in-between adolescence and adulthood was sharpened and extended by the unexpected delay in their progress toward building an independent life.”
Emerging adults’ mental health still has not recovered, despite the end of the COVID emergency, according to Arnett’s study. Among them, symptoms of anxiety disorder and depression remains nearly as high now — nearly 40 percent for anxiety disorder and almost 35 percent for depression — as in the first year of the pandemic.
“Rates of mental health distress remain especially high among young women and Asian Americans,” Arnett writes. Young women have a “long-established greater susceptibility to mental health distress,” he explains, and Asian Americans experienced “widespread hostility and racism directed at them by other Americans” blaming China for the start of the pandemic.
Among the difficulties that most affected emerging adults’ mental health:
The report brings to light recommendations for several actionable steps that can be implemented nationally to address the continuing mental health crisis among emerging adults — and even the next crisis:
“With rates of anxiety and depression remaining stunningly high, we can see clearly that the prevailing mental health challenges brought on by the pandemic are not going away anytime soon,” says Sharon Shapiro, trustee and community liaison for the Ruderman Family Foundation, an internationally recognized organization that works to end the stigma associated with mental health.
“As emerging adults continue to face these rising challenges, our foundation is committed to bolstering essential forms of support through our partnerships and initiatives, such as Dr. Arnett’s report,” she adds. “This report is crucial because it brings to light recommendations for several actionable steps that can be implemented nationally to address this crisis — and even the next crisis, which we must also begin to prepare for before it emerges.”
Arnett is author of “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties” (2014), with a third edition to be published in 2024 by Oxford University Press.
He directed several Clark University Polls that yielded insights into how emerging adults, parents, and established adults view a wide range of topics including financial support, sex and love, parenthood, work-life balance, career/workplace issues, and more. Arnett founded the Society for the Study of Emerging Adulthood and served as its first executive director.