As the coronavirus pandemic wears on with no end in sight, Tony Salvatore keeps hearing from more and more young adults in crisis.
They call the Montgomery County Suicide Prevention Team hotline about having their work hours cut, losing their jobs, and not being able to find work as more businesses close. They call with their worries about not being able to graduate on time. They call because their colleges can’t tell them what they need to know about maintaining scholarships or returning to classes.
“Young adults are totally overwhelmed by everything,” said Salvatore, the chairperson of the team. “They’re not so much concerned about getting COVID-19 as they are about the effect that it has had on their lives and the lives of people around them.”
The increase in calls he has noticed over the last two months reflects how mental health among Americans has continued to deteriorate, especially among young adults, as well as in Black and Latino people of all ages.
A report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week found that among 5,400 respondents, nearly 41% reported at least one mental or behavioral health condition, such as symptoms of anxiety, depression, trauma, or increased use of substances to cope. Anxiety symptoms reported between June 24 and 30 were three times as prevalent as the second quarter of 2019, and depression was four times as high. Young adults in particular were affected — nearly 75% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 reported experiencing at least one behavioral or mental health symptom.
A quarter of young adults reported that they had thought about suicide in June, compared with nearly 11% of respondents overall reporting they were seriously considering suicide in the 30 days before completing the survey, doubling pre-COVID-19 rates. Black and Latino people, caregivers, and essential workers were particularly vulnerable to such thoughts.
Hector Colón-Rivera, medical director of the Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha Inc. (APM) Behavioral Health Program, said mental health is worsening in Latino populations because of a lack of resources. He said Spanish-speaking communities often receive information later than English-speaking ones.
“That causes people to be anxious,” said Colón-Rivera, whose nonprofit organization is dedicated to behavior and substance use disorder services in the Hispanic communities of the Philadelphia region. “It’s already hard for this community to be apart, coping with the fear of being infected. Not having information, or access to Spanish-speaking doctors over telehealth, increases someone’s chance of becoming depressed.”
Lily Brown, director of the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania, said it was not surprising that social isolation is affecting the mental health of young people.
“Forging and maintaining social connections is extremely important to a sense of independence in late adolescence to early adulthood,” Brown said. “A lot of folks in this age range are facing fears about what their future is going to look like. People feel like this time is ticking by, which has led to a tremendous amount of uncertainty, which really breeds anxiety.”
Plus, not having a firm work, academic, and social schedule can be a big predictor of depression, Brown said. Adolescence and young adulthood is when people learn how to effectively manage emotions and stressors, and having to learn how to do so in a less-than-ideal environment is extremely difficult.
Many people have a mental image of what they’re supposed to be doing, which they compare to what they’re actually doing. When those two images are off, there can be an effect on mental health, she said.
“Reality is totally different from the mental images people had just six months ago,” Brown said. “There’s really no end in sight for many of us. Young people are wondering, ‘How long is this going to go on for? When can we really start to live our adult lives?’ And no one has a compelling answer.”
Brown said that if parents or caregivers notice that a young person is struggling, they should encourage them to consider teletherapy sooner rather than later. Changes in behavior can be a sign that someone needs professional help, she said.
“One of the biggest predictors that someone’s mental health is starting to take a hit is a lack of future planning,” Brown said. “We want to see young people thinking about their future, even if some of the pieces of the puzzle are missing right now. When youth start to think hopelessly about the future, that’s when risk elevates.”