The Importance of Mental Wellbeing in Young Adults
Although 18-year-olds are considered legal adults, most people, including those who are 18, recognize that they still have emotional growing to do. This is because the logical part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed (and most likely won’t be) until they are 25 years old. The fact that most teenagers process information with the “emotional” part of the brain shouldn’t surprise you – if anything, this fact should give you a bit of insight (whether you’re a teen yourself or a parent who’s looking for answers.)
Between the ages of 18 and 25, the brain is still experiencing what psychologists call an “extended adolescence” or “psychosocial moratorium.” In other words, this time of life is the tail end of the rapid development that teenagers go through.
“I’m keenly aware of the shift, as I often see adolescents presenting with some of the same complaints as college graduates,” Columbia University psychiatrist Mirjana Domakonda tells Scientific American. “Twenty-five is the new 18, and delayed adolescence is no longer a theory but a reality. In some ways, we’re all in a ‘psychosocial moratorium,’ experimenting with a society where swipes constitute dating and likes are the equivalent of conversation.”
Of course, this understanding of brain maturation isn’t likely all that surprising, considering most people between the ages of 18 and 25 are in a period of transition. Much like the transitional period that is puberty, this time of life entails changes in the brain, hormones, and life circumstances, all of which bring the potential for emotional distress and mental health concerns. Let’s look at the big picture: Nearly 70 percent of mental disorders begin before 25. Yet, hundreds of adolescents remain underdiagnosed and undertreated. Red flags of poor mental health are overlooked for several reasons, including a lack of awareness or knowledge about mental health or a negative stigma. Here are a few predisposing factors that could affect your teen’s or young adult child’s (or maybe your own, if reading this as a young adult) mental health.
Several predisposing factors predict whether or not a young adult will experience symptoms of mental distress or illness. This information can be vital in planning early interventions to minimize struggles later in life. It’s also useful to know when young adults have had to contend with these factors when developing plans to address current struggles.
While it’s not an unequivocal given, parental abuse (either physical or psychological) is connected to unfulfilling relationship patterns, strained coping skills, lack of self-compassion, misuse of substances, and often more serious mental illness later in life. A longitudinal study examined more than 1500 participants and found that childhood neglect and abuse were associated with decreased emotional closeness and less frequent exchanges of social support with mothers, which was related to diminished psychological well-being.
Psychological abuse can also predict delinquency, aggression, anxiety, substance abuse, depression, PTSD, and dysthymia, or low level, persistent depression in both adolescence and young adulthood. In this instance, psychological abuse includes verbal abuse, harsh, nonphysical punishments, or threats of physical violence.
In childhood and young adulthood, diet can also serve as a predictor of future academic or emotional struggles. Food insecurity, especially in young adults, can cause chronic stress and malnutrition, both of which are associated with increased levels of anxiety and depression. At times, malnutrition not only occurs when food is scarce, but it can also occur when individuals consume too much of the wrong foods. For example, consuming unhealthy levels of sugar is correlated with symptoms of anxiety and depression.
For both teens and young adults, depression and anxiety can co-occur with substance abuse. Many young people may turn to substances to self-medicate, not knowing that a developing brain is highly vulnerable to damage from drug and alcohol abuse. In such cases, drug and alcohol abuse can become the focus of treatment, while the underlying mental health problems go undetected.
Drug use, especially early in life, is a risk factor for developing substance use disorders and mental illness. For instance, marijuana use in adolescence can increase the risk of psychosis in adulthood, as there is reasonable evidence suggesting that regular cannabis use in young adults predicts an increased risk of schizophrenia and of reporting psychotic symptoms, particularly in individuals with personal or family history of schizophrenia.
Mental illness in young adults
Mental health problems affect up to 25 percent of young people every year. Signs of psychological distress and illness in young adults include excessive worrying or fear, feelings of intense sadness or emotional numbness, difficulty concentrating, extreme mood changes, avoiding friends and socializing, changes in sleeping habits, changes in eating habits, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation. Young adults rarely seek treatment and, likewise, rarely receive adequate treatment.
While this may be due to perceived social stigma, it is also likely related to the fact that young adults are newly independent. They may not have the self-knowledge or introspective capabilities to know when and how to seek out help. College students, in particular, are at risk for mental illness, as college can introduce a multitude of new stressors. Even for students equipped with healthy coping strategies, the typical college environment presents academic challenges, new living arrangements, and increased personal responsibility. Pair these stressors with access to drugs and alcohol, and you have the perfect crucible for mental illness.
More than 20 percent of college students are diagnosed with mental health problems every year, with 40 percent of those affected by mental health problems going untreated and undiagnosed. Unsurprisingly, nearly 50 percent of students who experience anxiety while in college find that their anxiety causes their academic performance to suffer. In addition to academic ramifications, mental illness in young adults can cause problems in other vital areas of development in these early stages of emerging adulthood.
Social and emotional development
In essence, an adolescent and young adult’s social and emotional development determines their ability to experience, express, and regulate their emotions. It can determine whether or not they’re able to form long-lasting interpersonal relationships and, in the most extreme cases, whether or not they can maintain lives as fully functioning members of society. Early adulthood is when people explore their identity, learn how to manage themselves, experience more intimate relationships, and establish themselves as an individual in the world — distinct from their role within their family. If left untreated, mental illness can impede emotional health and social development in young people. This can cause them to become increasingly isolated, which further contributes to feelings of depression and disillusionment.
How to address mental wellbeing in young adults
Mental health and wellness in young adults can directly contribute to their long-term success. Identifying coping mechanisms for mental illness can be life-changing for young adults.
Resilience is critical in fortifying young adults against the onset of depression and anxiety. Resilience allows people to adapt to new and unique sources of stress and significant traumatic events or losses. The good news is that most people already possess inner resilience that can be honed and developed.
Encourage the young adult in your life to make social connections. If they have a small circle of friends, encourage them to spend time with their friends consistently. Please help them to become involved in group organizations that give back to others. Finding a sense of higher purpose can be helpful in times of stress. Help teach the young adult in your life that change is inevitable, but it is not a negative thing. Most importantly, work with them in a way that prepares them for tackling significant goals. Breaking up projects into smaller, manageable goals, for example, is an easy way to learn time management and prepare them for the inevitable stress of emerging adulthood.
Identifying unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors
You may also want to have a very open and honest conversation with your loved one about mental health, especially if they have a genetic or experiential predisposition to mental illness. Addressing the possibility and symptoms of such illnesses like depression and anxiety in a non-judgemental way will help them identify those feelings in themselves or others and talk more openly about them.
Encouraging mental health counseling
Just as you would support a friend or child to seek medical treatment if they had a fever or a broken limb, so too should you encourage a young adult to find a therapist if they’re experiencing a mental health crisis. They should be aware that there is no “one size fits all” treatment for mental health. Remind them that help is available and, in some cases, crucial for successful adult life.
Young adults are particularly susceptible to developing mental illness. Unfortunately, they are not always aware of the possibility of experiencing a mental health challenge before they leave home. Teaching young adults about what they may face and addressing their emotional concerns can allow them to take control of their lives.