51% of young Americans say they feel down, depressed or hopeless—here’s how advocates are trying to help

Klaus Vedfelt | DigitalVision | Getty Images

While many young people have been spared from the harshest physical consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, an increasingly large volume of research suggests they are facing drastic mental health consequences. 

In June 2020, the CDC released data that suggests one in four adults ages 18 to 24 have considered suicide. And according to the recently released Harvard Youth Poll of 2,513 Americans ages 18 to 29, 51% of young Americans said that at least several days in the previous two weeks they had felt down, depressed or hopeless. 

"There's been this narrative that young people are spared a lot of the impact of Covid because they're less likely to develop real severe physical complications," says Ellen Burstein, one of the poll's lead researchers and a junior at Harvard. "But it's taken a profound toll on their mental health."

Young people reported a range of serious mental health symptoms in the Harvard survey. A startling 68% say they have little energy; 59% say they have trouble with sleep; 52% find little pleasure in doing things; 49% have a poor appetite or are over-eating; 48% have trouble concentrating; 32% are moving so slowly, or are fidgety to the point that others notice; and 28% have had thoughts of self-harm.

Approximately 35% of Black respondents and 31% of Hispanic respondents said they experience bouts of severe depression triggering thoughts that they would be better off dead or hurting themselves. 

"Young people have really experienced this crisis on all sorts of fronts," says Burstein. "They've experienced severe disruptions to their education (for those that are currently in high school or college). Many young people are lower-wage workers, who have borne the brunt of many economic disruptions. They're worried about their friends. They're worried about their families. They're often cut off from their friends and family. And they're worried about their futures in a very turbulent time for the country and the world.

"But it's not just Covid."

Courtesy of The Harvard IOP

Experts have long raised concerns about a growing mental health crisis among young people. 

In 2018, researchers from the World Health Organization, led by Columbia University Psychology Professor Randy P. Auerbach, surveyed nearly 14,000 first-year college students from eight countries (Australia, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Spain and the U.S.) and found that 35 percent struggled with a mental illness. 

The most common mental illness was major depressive disorder, with 21% of respondents experiencing lifelong symptoms, followed by general anxiety disorder, impacting approximately 19% of those surveyed.

A November 2020 survey overseen by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators of 3,500 full-time students currently enrolled in four-year degree programs, found that 81% of college students are experiencing significant levels of anxiety. 

Courtesy of NASPA
The National Association of Student Personnel Administrators

NASPA CEO Kevin Kruger tells CNBC Make It that while reported anxiety among young people and adolescents has steadily increased over the past decade, remote learning is a significant cause for the elevated levels of stress this year. 

"Our most vulnerable students have been affected more significantly by the change in both instructional methodology as well as campus changes in general," he says. "For instance, our LGBTQ students are experiencing much higher levels of stress and anxiety. And we see students of color, particularly Black students, are more likely to use emergency services, around food insecurity or housing insecurity." 

He continues, "There are some really significant equity issues that are embedded in the way the pandemic is affecting college students."

To address what some fear is a mounting mental health emergency, advocates are pushing for policies aimed at addressing the needs of young people specifically. 

"Young adult mental health was in a crisis state before the pandemic. Even in 2019, we were seeing up to 30% of 18 to 25-year-olds struggling with their mental health, and this is the highest prevalence of any age group," says Caitlin Briody, an Illinois-based partnerships coordinator at Young Invincibles, an advocacy nonprofit focused on 18 to 34-year-olds. "While we would hope that as we get some vaccines and things start to open up, ideally things would improve. But I think the traumas of the past year, between the pandemic and the racial violence that we've seen as well, are sticking with people."

Briody is currently advocating for $19 million in increased funding for mental health services on college campuses in Illinois. 

"We're at a critical point right now, in terms of making sure students get these services because while it's a well-being issue, and that's incredibly important, it's also an academic performance issue, a graduation issue," she says. "Students who struggle with their mental health are twice as likely to drop out of college, and we want to see students succeeding and graduating." 

In Colorado, Briody's co-worker Kyra DeGruy is calling for insurance providers to be required to cover annual mental health wellness checks. 

Over the past year, there has also been a reported increase in substance abuse disorders among young people, attributed in part to mental health challenges. DeGruy is pushing for the passage of two state bills that would increase funding for substance abuse disorder prevention and curbing the prescription of opioids to young people — a cause that hits close to home. 

"I lived in the mountains when I was in my early 20s and was engaged to a man who was a semi-pro skier, and broke his back, and got addicted to opioids, and used heroin for the first time, and overdosed and died," she says. "This is an unfortunately very, very common story."

DeGruy stresses the importance of destigmatizing mental health challenges and making sure young people know they are not alone.

"You are not alone. A lot of mental health and behavioral health issues or illnesses are really isolating in nature, and they make people feel like, not only are you worthless, but you're all alone in your worthlessness," she says. "But the same way that you can get the flu, or you can get Covid, people get mental health issues. You're not by yourself, and there are resources. Even though it may feel all-encompassing, and that it will never pass, it will pass."

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255

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