Studying Pandemic’s Effect on Mental Health in Young Adults

Young adults in masks at schoolThe COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for almost everyone, and different populations have been hit in different ways. For people aged 18–30 years, it has had an outsized effect on mental health, especially in terms of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Even before the pandemic, young adults had high rates of mental health problems,” said Cindy H. Liu, PhD, a psychologist in the Department of Pediatric Newborn Medicine and the Department of Psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a Tynan Faculty Research Fellow within the Connors Center for Women’s Health and Gender Biology. “The pandemic hasn’t necessarily caused these problems, but it has exacerbated them.”

She explained that young adults have higher rates of certain mental health conditions because so many are going through a period of extreme change in their lives. “They may be moving away from home for the first time, or graduating or finding their first job,” she said. “They may also be looking for a life partner or thinking about starting families. It’s a time of many transitions.”

Collecting Mental Health Data on Young Adults

Dr. Liu and her colleague Hyeouk Chris Hahm, PhD, of Boston University, have published several articles on mental health in the young-adult population since the onset of the pandemic. One study looked at factors associated with depression, anxiety and PTSD in young adults; one looked at the effects on sleep; and another focused on college students.

“When the pandemic began, college students were one of the first populations who were confronted with disruption,” she noted. “Unlike other groups in the U.S., many of them had to physically move as campuses closed.”

In a viewpoint article published in the Journal of American College Health, Dr. Liu and her coauthors highlighted two urgent priorities for addressing current college mental health needs: the development of strategies for ensuring access to mental health services and intentional outreach to college students with special circumstances. “Such widescale disruptions can do the most damage to those who already face challenges in obtaining resources, even for institutions that actively promote equitable access,” she said.

Two of her other studies employed data collected from a population of 898 young adults who volunteered to be assessed online between April 13, 2020, and May 19, 2020. “We really wanted to document what was transpiring after the United States designated COVID-19 as a pandemic,” she said.

A study published in Psychiatry Research found high levels of depression (43.3%), anxiety (45.4%) and PTSD symptoms (31.8%) in young adults. Participants also reported high levels of loneliness and COVID-19-specific worry along with low tolerance for distress. Another study, also published in Psychiatry Research, looked at the effects of the pandemic specifically on sleep disturbances. “There’s a strong association between mental health and sleep, and it affects quality of life,” she said.

Expanding Mental Health Research Beyond the Pandemic

Since the initial data were collected, the United States has continued to undergo upheaval, in particular in areas surrounding racial discrimination and social justice. Dr. Liu and her colleagues are studying the volunteers from their earlier work to measure further the impact of these circumstances on mental health.

“We know that young adults are quite involved and participating in a lot of the conversations and the advocacy around social justice,” she said. “We didn’t want to discount that.”

Dr. Liu added that because the population of young adults in the United States is more diverse, they are also more likely to be personally affected by racial discrimination. Some of her future work will focus on this issue.