Impact of pandemic on ’emerging adults’ should not be overlooked

By Catherine Robertson Souter
March 8th, 2021
Jeffrey Arnett, Ph.D, is a senior research scholar at Clark University.
Jeffrey Arnett, Ph.D, is a senior research scholar at Clark University.

The pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into everyone’s plans. From weddings to holidays to vacation travel, we have all been impacted. School children struggle with online classwork and parents with managing a house full of people. Seniors have had to face increased health risks and the effects of the isolation meant to protect them.

“There is something lost,” said Jeffrey Arnett, Ph.D, senior research scholar at Clark University. “We have all cancelled parties and family events and vacations and little things like dinners with friends. You do lose something and I think we all have to be honest about that. That is just the way it is and if we are lucky, it will help us appreciate even more the times we were able to take for granted before.”

But what of the age group that is often expected to handle it all easily? Today’s young adults, the 18 to 26-year-olds, are in fact, dealing with the same difficult times as everyone else, all while trying to go about the business of taking preliminary steps towards becoming self-reliant adults.

Arnett coined the term “emerging adulthood” for this age, a time when people reach certain psychological markers of adulthood, such as accepting responsibility for one’s self and making independent decisions.

His research over the course of his career has covered a variety of topics including the influence of music and advertising and risk behaviors on the age group. It is a time of life where young people may not have all the responsibilities of an adult but may also feel so uncertain of their futures that the stress levels were skyrocketing, even before this crazy year.

“This is a key time of life for laying the foundation for adulthood,” he said. “and especially in terms of education and work experience, that has really been blown up. They were already feeling the stress and with their progress delayed with COVID, a lot will experience even more anxiety than they already do. They often feel like they are falling behind or not making enough progress even if they are really perfectly normal.”

College experiences, both in and outside of classrooms, have been either disrupted or reduced. Employment, internship, and even volunteer opportunities have dried up.

“What a time to be trying to get your first professional experience,” Arnett added. “The unemployment rate is the highest for this age group.”

There may be, for some, a feeling of the bottom dropping out of their world.

“They don’t have a path laid out for them, no structure,” said David Bendor, Psy.D, clinical coordinator at the Institute of Living at Hartford Hospital. “A lot of them are struggling to figure out what this adult thing looks like and what happens with so many restrictions in place, especially if they are out of school and they were fully expecting to be in jobs or grad schools. Many are just wandering adrift.”

From a mental health perspective, this age group may also be taking a harder hit than older or younger people.

“The young adult struggle is about becoming your own person and part of that is taking care of your own mental health and medical needs,” said Bendor. “That was already a real challenge. I know that the numbers we see are up and the acuity is up. Plus, access is a real barrier to some right now because they may not have good Internet or they don’t feel comfortable online.”

When working with this age group during the pandemic, a therapist should be aware of the unique concerns that patients are facing–from job insecurity to health concerns to the disconnection of social networks.

Before addressing any of those issues, it may be necessary to start with basic self-care concerns.

“Because there is so much less oversight than they had in school or living at home,” said Bendor, “it is striking how much unstructured time they could have now. They could be dealing with poor sleep hygiene or spending too much time on screens. Young adults are getting lost quickly without that structure in place. So, I am asking that first: `what does your average day look like?’”

Reminding them that this time will end can also be important. However long it takes, life will return to some sort of normal and jobs and social circles will re-open and they will have time to rebuild.

“There is no strict timetable,” said Arnett. “No one is saying that on your 21st or 25th birthday, you suddenly have to be ready to support yourselves and stand on your own. That is not how it works. This probably will delay you, but in the end, it is unlikely to make much of a difference in your adult life. So, I would remind them, ‘Don’t put a lot of stress and anxiety on yourself in addition to what you are already having to endure.’”

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