The (Statistical) Breakdown
One in four young adults ages 18-24 (25.5%) reported suicidal ideation in June 2020, per the CDC, while only 11.8% of that same population reported suicidal ideation in 2019 (NIMH). By September 2020, 51% of youth ages 11-17 reported suicidal ideation or behavior, as reported in a Mental Health America COVID-19 report, compared to 18.8% of high-school aged youth in 2019 (CDC). The youth mental health crisis existed pre-pandemic, with peer pressure, school shootings, social media perfectionism, and bullying all contributing factors. The addition of 24/7 news coverage of rising COVID-19 death tolls, racial and LGBTQIA injustices, eco-anxiety, economic ruin, barriers to mental health treatment, and the disruption of social systems due to quarantine contributed to a massive spike in reported anxiety, depression, substance use, and suicidal ideation.
Isolation — The Root Cause
With quarantine lasting months on end and a public health policy requiring physical distancing of at least 6 feet while wearing a face mask meant no physical contact with anyone outside of one’s family, if that. Both the CDC and the American Journal of Epidemiology claim that social isolation can weaken immune response and when compounded, in the context of a global pandemic, can lead to a broader public health decline. During that fateful month of March in 2020, colleges and universities halted in person studies and migrated to an entirely virtual experience. Many workplaces went fully remote, laid off their employees, or had to shut down, as in the case of hospitality (e.g. restaurants, bars, concert venues, hotels). Young adults who had built up social systems of support at their colleges and universities or those freshly in the workforce with newfound relationships now found themselves separated from what was familiar. Young adulthood is recognized as a transitional time in one’s life to build a new identity through the development of responsibilities (e.g. academic, employment, etc.). The pandemic drastically interrupted this growth.
Isolation, an already known risk factor for suicidality, often presents in tandem with other risk factors including anxiety, depression, hopelessness. Divorce, living alone, being single, and grief due to the death of a partner are further causes contributing to loneliness, on top of social isolation mandates as a response to fight off the spread of COVID-19. Limited access to those in-person social systems (extended family, friends, school, faith-based or community organizations) amplified feelings of isolation and reduced something many of us might have taken for granted — the amount of hugs between friends and family. Oxytocin is a chemical released in the body during a hug/embrace and is scientifically-proven to add to people’s happiness, well-being, and positive mental health (Healthline). With a lack of hugs and access to in-person support, it’s no wonder that feelings of isolation and loneliness, along with severe anxiety and depression, spiked in youth (11-17) and young adults (18-24).
What Can We Do Moving Forward?
Mental health can no longer be ignored.
The CDC recommends an increase in intervention and prevention efforts to address all COVID-19 associated mental health concerns ranging from public health policies to individual community programs with a priority on youth/young adults, racial/ethnic minorities, and essential workers, among others.
Here’s what we can all do to create a better future, together:
- Lobby for the teaching of coping skills within the education system to build emotional resilience, starting in elementary school
- Remove barriers and expand access to mental health treatment (e.g. telehealth, outpatient, on-campus counseling, mental health phone apps, residential), especially to vulnerable populations like racial/ethnic minorities and LGBTQIA+
- Make mental health screenings accessible and user-friendly (see the Mental Health America screenings)
- Foster connection with others — virtually, in-person, or a combination of both
- Expand on-campus mentorship/buddy programs
- Shatter the stigma associated with reaching out for help via advocacy efforts