The Growing Mental Health Effects of COVID-19 for Young Adults

The pandemic, school closures, and social isolation are all taking a serious toll on the lives of high school and college students.

by Sarah Ellis Health Writer

With school re-openings in full swing (or not), there’s a lot of uncertainty for high school and college students about what this next year will look like. Some students have returned to their campuses, only to be told their classes will be held online. Some are cooped up at home, separated from their usual cohort of teachers and friends. There is still no clear path forward about how this pandemic may proceed, and when life will resemble some version of “normal” again.

2020 has been a rough year for everyone, but teens and young adults are among those hit hardest by mental health concerns. A recent CDC report of 5,400 people found that 25% of respondents between the age of 18-24 had contemplated suicide in the previous 30 days. Jennifer Rothman, senior manager of youth and young adult initiatives at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Arlington, Virginia, notes that the NAMI hotline has seen a significant increase in calls over the last few months. “We’re hearing more calls about anxiety, a lot of stress and depression,” she says.

Active Minds, a nonprofit advocacy group supporting mental health education for students, has also reported some concerning statistics this year. A recent survey found that 80% of students have experienced some negative impact to their mental health due to the pandemic. 20% say their mental health has significantly worsened. Chief Program Officer Laura Horne explains that this is part of a larger trend showing an increase in depression and anxiety among young people in recent years.

The Effects of Social Isolation

Research shows that extended periods of loneliness can deteriorate mental and physical health outcomes over time, leading to depression, musculoskeletal disorders, and even chronic disease. Rothman notes that social isolation has really taken a toll on young people, many of whom have been out of traditional school for six months now. They face “the uncertainty of, ‘when is school going to go back?’” she says. “When can we see our friends and hug them?” The structure of life–at least how life used to look–vanished almost completely overnight.

Horne notes that Active Minds students also feel disconnected. “Many of us were under strict stay-at-home orders during the spring, and it was very isolating,” she says. “I think young adults especially were missing that in-person time with their peers.” In March, most schools across the country were forced to shut their doors abruptly to mitigate the spread of the virus. That’s a huge day-to-day adjustment for students, Horne explains, on top of the shock and fear of COVID-19.

If you have a young person in your life, you might be wondering how to support them without overstepping or pushing them away. We went straight to the source, asking two student advocates from Active Minds about what is helping them most right now.

What Students Are Feeling

There’s no comprehensive word to sum up the emotions of this moment. Kelly Maguire, 20, a junior at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, describes it as a general sense of grief. “When we hear the word grief, we tend to think of the death of a loved one or somebody really close,” she says–a tragically frequent occurrence since COVID-19 began. “On top of that, there’s the grief of losing your sense of normalcy, routine, and social connections.”

Maguire recently returned to campus after a summer at home. “In living at home, one of the biggest things I needed was to feel validated and heard,” she says. It meant a lot to her when people would say things such as, “That must be really difficult, and I can’t imagine how you must feel right now.” That opened the door for conversation – without a clear solution or an attempt to “fix” the scenario. “We don’t need to give advice, necessarily,” Maguire says. “We just need to sit there and be with each other.”

Anushka Gupta, 17, a senior at John L. Miller Great Neck North High School in Great Neck, NY, is concerned about returning to school safely this fall. “I hope students understand the gravity of the situation, and how we all have to work together to make sure that we’re able to learn in a safe environment,” she says. She notes that many high school seniors aren’t sure what their college experience will look like next year, and that uncertainty can be destabilizing.

Gupta’s best advice for parents is to just provide a listening ear. “Sometimes when we’re very stressed out with school and all the things we’re juggling, we don’t feel like talking much,” she says. Parents can acknowledge that by simply saying, “I’m here when you’re ready to talk,” and allowing their child some space. “You’re putting the ball in their court, so they get to decide when they’re ready to have that conversation with you,” Gupta explains–even if it doesn’t happen right away.

Watch for Warning Signs

It’s not always easy to recognize when someone is going through a mental health crisis, especially if they aren’t particularly forthcoming with their emotions. “What families really want to look for is changes in behaviors, changes in personality,” Rothman says. “If your child isn’t talking to you as much anymore, or spending a lot time by themselves,” that’s a red flag, especially if they’re not taking time to connect with their friends virtually.

You may also see a decrease in motivation, Rothman notes, especially without the routine of in-person schooling. If your student is having a hard time getting out of bed, if they’re sleeping too little, or if their appetite has changed, this may denote mental stress.

“As a parent, follow your gut,” Rothman says. “If you feel like something might not be right, it’s better to talk with them or find someone for them to talk to before it might spiral into something more serious.”

Talking It Out

In general, it helps just to be present and available. Active Minds found that the number one way parents can support students is simply by spending time with them. “It doesn’t have to be productive time,” Horne says. Maybe you allow more time online than usual to let them connect with their friends. Maybe you incorporate morning walks or evening dinners into your daily routine. Whatever it is, this will help create the space necessary to dive in deeper.

No clue how to start the conversation? Horne lays out a three-step tool from Active Minds to help people talk about mental health.

  1. Validate. “When we hear that someone is struggling, our instinct is to start offering solutions,” Horne says. “But what we challenge everyone to do is to take a moment and validate the other person’s experience.” Don’t jump to say, “Oh, it’s not that bad!” or “It could be so much worse!” This makes the other person feel worse. Instead, make it clear that you hear them and understand their challenges, even if they are very different from your own.

  2. Appreciate. The next step is to admire the courage it took to admit something so personal. “It is very hard to ask for help,” Horne says, whether you’re 18 or 68 years old. “We know that sharing when we’re struggling [and] asking for help is a key piece of succeeding in life, but we don’t always talk about it.”

  3. Refer. Now that you’ve helped your student feel more comfortable expressing themselves, it’s time to take concrete action. Don’t just offer up a list of counseling services. “Ask questions to help your young adult explore the different ideas for where help can come from,” Horne says. She suggests asking questions like, “When you’re feeling sad, what usually helps?” or “If we could fix one thing together today that would make the biggest difference, what would that be?” Remember that what works for you may not work for them. We all have our own best way forward.

Here are some good places to start.

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (24/7): 1-800-273-8255

  • Crisis Text Line: 741741

  • Therapist Referrals: Psychology Today, Mental Health America, school counseling offices

  • Talk or Text Therapy: Talkspace, BetterHelp, Trusst

Sarah Ellis
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is a wellness and culture writer who covers everything from contraceptive access to chronic health conditions to fitness trends. She is originally from Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in NYC. She has written for Elite Daily, Greatist, mindbodygreen and others. When she’s not writing, Sarah loves distance running, vegan food, and getting the most out of her library card.