Mental Health in Young Adults
Young adulthood is a transitional time of life, involving numerous adjustments and defining decisions.
Young adulthood encompasses the vast jump from childhood to adulthood, and in this new space young adults move towards “adulting” and all the responsibilities that come with it.
This season of life may involve graduating high school; going to college or forging an “out of the box” path; adjusting to living away from parents; choosing a major; graduating college; and determining initial career steps.
Simply transiting to living apart from parents and your primary support system is an incredible change, and even if young adults live with their parents for a longer time, they are still faced with the developmental task of separating from their parents in their decision making and independence.
To describe this process, clinicians continue to rely on the research and writings of developmental psychologist Erik Erikson. He emphasized that the key developmental task for young adulthood is intimacy versus isolation — pointing to the value of genuine, authentic relationships. There is significant value in being known and, in return, knowing a small circle of people to walk through life with. There is growth and healing through the context of relationship that does not happen in isolation. While finding and committing to a life partner may be part of many young adults’ life experience, that is not everyone’s story. Authentic relationships and the developmental task of intimacy can happen even without finding a life partner. Still, for many this is a central focus in young adulthood.
While young adulthood can be incredibly adventuresome — young adults may study or live abroad, move to a new state or foreign country, or simply to pursue their dreams closer to home — it can also pose various challenges. Leaving home can bring profound loneliness. Learning to feel OK with some solitude is a developmental task, too. There can also be a great deal of stress in making career decisions and taking on financial provision for yourself.
Young Adults and Mental Illness in Mississippi
One in five adults in the United States suffer from mental illness, and one in twenty-five adults suffer from a serious mental illness in a given year in a way that significantly interferes with their ability to function. Young adults aged 18-25 years old have the highest prevalence of general mental illness (25.8 percent) compared to adults aged 26-49 years old (22.2 percent) and aged 50 and older (13.8 percent). In this sense, general mental illness means any kind of mental illness, as opposed to the specific category of severe mental illness.
Applying national statistics at the state level would suggest more than 454,000 adults in Mississippi experience mental illness. The most recent state statistics show that 147,000 adults in Mississippi dealt with substance abuse or dependence — a common way for people to cope with mental-health problems. While these statistics do not bracket young adults separately, we can deduce that a larger number of these adults were young adults.
Common Mental-Health Issues Among Young Adults
Young adulthood is a unique phase of life in that young adults are grown physically, yet mentally they are still developing cognitively. In fact, the part of the brain that plans, organizes and thinks through consequences does not typically develop fully until someone has reached their mid-twenties. Because of this, it is common for young adults to seek out pleasurable experiences without thinking through risks. In the midst of the cognitive development still taking place and the heightened emotions and various changes young adults experience, young adults are in a vulnerable place. Thus, mental-health issues often first emerge in young adulthood.
In exploring mental-health issues, it’s important to remember that mental-health issues encompass a wide range of disorders ranging in severity. Young adults face so many life adjustments and decisions that sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between growing pains through various seasons and real mental-health issues. When experiencing symptoms significantly for the first time, it can be confusing to understand what is going on. It’s important to remember that emotions are normal, and we all experience sadness from time to time, especially during relationship break-ups which often happen in young adulthood. In this sense, the greatest way to discern between hard times and mental-health issues is to look at your functioning. Are the emotions so intense and frequent that your functioning is being affected?
Common mental-health issues among young adults include addiction, attention deficit disorder, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, identity questions, and self-harming behaviors. All of us are faced with continuing to develop healthy coping skills with emotional pain, and sometimes self-harm emerges as a coping skill for young adults because it numbs their pain. Many times, these young adults are not intending to seriously harm themselves. Yet by engaging in self-harm, they get caught up in a cycle that tells them that they must harm themselves to experience relief. If experiencing significant depression, young adults may find themselves experiencing such intense lows that they begin to experience suicidal thoughts.
Mental-Health Concerns in College
Leaving home and attending college, while an incredible opportunity, is a significant adjustment. There are layers of so many adjustments in the midst of the large adjustment. A young adult is typically faced with a new town, new roommates, new friends, new teachers, and an overall new lifestyle. While all of this can be exciting, some students find themselves missing their families and friends from home intensely and may find themselves having difficulty adjusting to their new environment. Academic and financial stressors may also add to the stress that a young adult may experience in college. In addition, access to drugs and alcohol and a lifestyle of little sleep can be a recipe for difficulty.
Based on a survey in 2013, 20 percent of college students were diagnosed or treated with mental-health issues. (The numbers may in fact be higher, as not everyone acknowledges their struggle and reaches out for help.)
Top mental-health concerns for college students include:
Addiction: Drug and alcohol use ranges from moderation to extremes such as binge drinking and addiction. With the prevalence of drugs and alcohols among college students, a young adult may first use substances recreationally and then find themselves experiencing addiction and destruction.
Adjustment Disorder: There are so many changes during this season of life. Particularly difficult changes such as a relationship break-up or a living situation that causes isolation can make coping difficult for a young adult, to the point of affecting his or her ability to function. At times, an adjustment disorder may accompany anxiety, depression or both.
Anxiety: College students must adjust to a different kind of academic rhythm than what they experienced in the K-12 setting. Often there are just a few grades per class, so each test or project makes up a huge percentage of the final grade. College students may find themselves in a place where worry begins to consume them, especially as they feel career and financial pressure being tied to their performance.
Depression: Depression may emerge for college students at some point in their college career. It can be triggered by a relationship breakup, causing someone to feel especially alone. Depression is manifest physically and emotionally, when someone loses interest in things they once enjoyed and struggles with day-to-day functioning. Lack of sleep, little exercise and substance use all intensify depressive symptoms.
Eating Disorders: Sometimes in the midst of life’s stressors, people tend to cling to what they can control. For some people, eating becomes that thing. With the emphasis in our culture on body image and being thin, eating and body-image issues can easily spiral into full-blown eating disorders in college. Additionally, when a young adult is away from home, no one is making meals for him or her, or monitoring health on a daily basis.
Suicide: When depression and mental illness are untreated, people may find themselves in such an emotionally low place that they begin to think of harming themselves. If you or someone you love is in this place, reach out for help immediately. There is hope, and suicide is never the answer.
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to someone anytime 24/7. In case of a mental-health emergency, dial 911 or go directly to your nearest emergency room.
While young adulthood is an incredible time of growth — in relationships, education and career — navigating the changes and adjustments can be challenging. At times, mental-health issues emerge that merit attention.
For all of these mental-health issues, as well as the issues not named or identified in this guide, there is hope. Facing the stigma of mental health and taking care of yourself is a gift you give yourself, to ensure your growth through the developmental life stage of young adulthood and to a place of more resilience.
Explore Self-Assessment Guides from Right Track Medical Group
Resources on Mental Health in Young Adults
Collegiate Survey Project: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/CollegiateSurveyProject
This study examines eating disorder-related programs and services 165 participating colleges and universities.
Critical Mental Health Resources for College Students: https://www.onlinecolleges.net/for-students/mental-health-resources/
This guide contains a wealth of information related to maintaining good mental health and identifying mental health issues in addition to support groups and online resources.
Depression and College Students: https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/college-students#1
Learn more about the risks and consequences of depression in college students.
Erik Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development: https://www.simplypsychology.org/Erik-Erikson.html
Erikson's stages of psychosocial development is a comprehensive psychoanalytic theory that identifies a series of eight stages that a healthy developing individual should pass through from infancy to late adulthood.
Mental Health By The Numbers: https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers
These brief factsheets provided by the National Alliance On Mental Illness contain information on the prevalence and impact of mental illness.
Mental Illness: National Institute on Mental Health: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml
Statistics provide by the National Institute on Mental Health reveal the prevalence of mental illness and information related to the treatment of mental illness.
Mississippi Department of Mental Health Mental Health Treatment Fact Sheet: http://www.dmh.ms.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Fast-Facts-FY-18-Final.pdf
Provided by the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, this fact sheet provides numbers related to the treatment of mental health at Mississippi Department of Mental Health treatment facilities and also facts on the prevalence of mental health conditions across Mississippi.
Onset of Mental Illness: First Signs and Symptoms in Young Adults: https://www.skylandtrail.org/onset-of-mental-illness-first-signs-and-symptoms-in-young-adults/
Learn more about how brain development plays a role in the development of mental illness in young adults and how to recognize early signs of a mental illness.
The Top Mental Health Challenges Facing Students: https://www.bestcolleges.com/resources/top-5-mental-health-problems-facing-college-students/
Identify the signs and symptoms of common mental health issues for college students — and where and when to seek help.
By Elizabeth Burton, LPC, EdS, NCC for Right Track Medical Group
This article is provided for information only and is not a substitute for diagnosis or treatment by a mental-health professional.