Young Adults’ Pandemic Mental Health Risks

“Our college students are emerging adults,” said Betty Lai, an assistant professor of counseling psychology in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development at Boston College. At this age, you are still learning, still figuring things out as you go, she said, including what career you are going to pursue, and “who are the people you are going to have as part of your life long-term? All of these important developmental tasks come up.”

The pandemic is changing their opportunities to figure out those issues, and also, of course, changing their opportunities to go to school, to see their friends, to live away from home.

Dr. Lai studies mental health in the aftermath of disasters, like Hurricane Katrina or the Boston Marathon bombing. She said that in a recent study of college students, 91 percent reported moderate to high stress levels, and 39 percent reported moderate to severe anxiety, while 53 percent reported moderate to severe depression.

The current pandemic, she said, is “a breeding ground for mental health disaster,” with unprecedented levels of risk factors. “This exposure period is prolonged, longer than anything we’ve seen before,” she said, and the social isolation makes everything worse.

Some college students are going to be on campus this fall, but much of their learning will be remote, and they face strict safety rules limiting social activity. Other students face another semester of staying home. Either way, parents should be alert for signs of stress and isolation. Stressors are heightened, Dr. Vinson said, and many people find themselves without their usual coping strategies.

This combination of uncertainty about their personal future and worry about the larger future can leave some people without much sense of hope or promise about what is coming next. “Hopelessness is one of the big drivers of suicide,” Dr. Vinson said. “It’s normally not about wanting to be dead; it’s about not wanting to live like this, whatever this is.”

In addition, Dr. Vinson said, suicide risk can be related to impulsiveness, and “we know people will often act more impulsively if they are using substances, which exacerbate mental health issues.”

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