Carolyn Reinach Wolf
Recently, the pandemic has placed a spotlight on the mental health of children, especially those unable to attend school in-person. A survey of U.S. high school students found that nearly a third were unhappy and depressed “much more than usual.” In Italy and Spain, polling showed that 86% of parents witnessed worrisome changes, from difficulty concentrating to less time engaging in physical activity. And a study of schoolchildren in China found increases in levels of both anxiety and depression. While there is no doubt that this data is extremely worrisome, attention must also be directed at the COVID-induced mental health crisis impacting young adults. Already a CDC report has shown a sharp uptick in suicide ideation among those between the ages of 18 and 24, with one in four individuals in this age group having recently seriously considered suicide at the time of the survey. Such statistics hit home when one reads such tragic stories as the death of Congressman Jamie Raskin’s 25-year-old son Thomas, who took his life on New Year’s Eve.
Young adults are particularly vulnerable to myriad ills wrought by the pandemic. Just at the age when they rely heavily on peer networks for not just friendship but validation, they have been hit hard by the necessity of social distancing. And at the very onset of adulthood, they have seen the direction of their lives profoundly altered, especially with the sharp reduction of job opportunities. Pre-COVID, young adults already suffered high rates of depression and anxiety. New freedoms, pressures, and temptations frequently trigger and/or exacerbate mental health conditions. For many, these are treatable with a combination of therapy and medication, but others experience more serious mental illnesses, which typically first manifest between ages 18 and 24. As a mental health attorney, I often first encounter families of loved ones in this exact age range. They represent some of my most challenging cases.
As 2021 unfolds, it is crucial that our society pays more attention to the mental health of those in their twenties. They have been suffering cumulative pandemic-induced stress at a particularly fragile stage of life, often without the benefit of resiliency skills, which typically require life experience to build. Colleges and undergraduate schools within universities have been stepping up, embracing established models and protocols through which to identify students in crisis and get them help. With COVID-induced mental health issues expected to stay with many of us for the foreseeable future, professional schools and graduate programs must now also commit to playing a larger role in supporting the mental health of young adults in their communities.
Such measures are long overdue at graduate schools. To illustrate, MIT became ensnared in a legal battle following the 2009 suicide of Ph.D. student Han Nguyen, who didn’t receive help even after contact with student disability services, despite a known history of suicide attempts. The Congressman’s son Thomas Raskin was a Harvard Law student. It’s past time that institutions treat mental health issues as they would visible, physical disabilities and provide appropriate accommodations and support. COVID has added urgency to this issue, but the need won’t be over when cases diminish. The mental health impacts of the pandemic will be long-lasting, and we must be prepared to help young adults who are suffering.