By Nickie Hayes
In March of 2020, COVID-19 began to creep into our lives, putting schools, businesses and life in general on hold. About a year later, young adults about to start their lives face intense mental anguish. Mental health complications have always been a problem, but now they are being exacerbated.
The closing of universities and schools, job loss and inability to conduct a normal social life as a young adult have all been contributing factors in the mental health battle most young adults seem to be facing. According to KFF.org, there has been an increase in sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts since the start of the pandemic in young adults ages 18 to 24. Observing the survey they have conducted as of December 2020, they found that 56% of young adults have reported symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorders.
Their findings continue in another survey done on the increased use of substances and suicidal thoughts. In a survey done in June 2020, 25% of young adults reported starting or increasing substance use, and 26% of young adults reported severe suicidal thoughts.
Sadly, other accounts made on this topic have had even more unfortunate reports. According to abcnews.go.com, the CDC surveyed 18- to 24-year-olds on anxiety and depression symptoms, finding that 63% have increased symptoms since the pandemic began.
Counselors have seen the impact firsthand
Christine Minck, the assistant director of counseling services at SUNY Plattsburgh, had plenty of insight on this topic. She is a national certified counselor and licensed mental health counselor in New York. Her interests include mental health and wellness, mental health advocacy and anti-stigma work, and integrative therapy and service leadership.
At SUNY Plattsburgh, Minck helps to provide counseling services to all students on campus. She said many of the students who she sees had been influenced by COVID-19 in some way.
“I think it would be almost unusual for us to hear a student say they haven’t been impacted by the pandemic at all,” Minck said.
Nicole Chiarello is a high school senior at Arlington High School and on the younger side of the young adult age bracket. She is from LaGrange, New York, and is currently doing her last year of school remotely. Remote learning has challenged Chiarello’s ability to stay focused on school work.
“I have an open schedule, and I find I get distracted from school a lot because when I am home doing school online, it’s very hard to just sit there and focus, when I know I could be doing other things,” she said.
Megan Szalkowski, a 23-year-old from Morrisonville, New York, attends SUNY Plattsburgh. She is taking classes online and remotely. For her, creating her own schedule during her day has been beneficial, but she said it can be difficult to keep up with all of her courses.
Szalkowski works for a restaurant that closed at the beginning of the pandemic but reopened for takeout orders. She said they are still closed for dining inside the restaurant, but workers can go in to help with takeout orders. She also said that she still gets nervous when going to work about her and her families well-being and health.
“Working right now is kind of scary,” Szalkowski said.
She said that it has been hard to start to make a living for herself. She lives at home with her parents, but trying to save money has been extremely difficult.
“I don’t have to pay rent, and I don’t have a lot of bills I need to pay, but I also want to save up so I can move when I graduate. The pandemic is making it much harder to do that because I don’t work a lot and also don’t really want to go into work,” Szalkowski said.
Chiarello is working at Taste New York on the Taconic State Parkway. She also has had troubles with worrying about her safety and the safety of those closest to her.
“You don’t really know who you are coming in contact with, and working at Taste New York there are always people traveling on the parkway. At first, I was really nervous, but then I started getting used to the routine of wearing masks and social distancing. I am still worried though, because there are people in my family that can’t get sick, so it’s still scary,” Chiarello said.
Thankfully, this is her first job, and since the pandemic, she has not had to deal with job loss. However, saving money and paying new bills has been especially worrisome.
“As I get older, I find there’s more opportunities for me and things I have to save for and pay for. With the pandemic going on, there is less business so saving and paying for my own things has been hard because there are less hours given to the workers,” Chiarello said.
maintaining relationships can prove difficult
As well, Chiarello has had a tough year trying to maintain connections with her school friends. With schools shutting down and COVID-19 persisting, she said it has been challenging to have a social life at all which has increased her anxiety symptoms.
“The lack of going to school and being around people has caused a lot of social anxiety for me. I already struggle with anxiety, so it just made everything a lot worse. Going out and finding new friends, staying with old friends, and even talking to close friends is hard now,” Chiarello said.
“I find myself not even wanting to make new friends because it’s so hard.”
In regards to trying to have a social life right now as a young adult, Szalkowski said she is an introvert and was not too social to begin with. Now during the pandemic, it has made that a lot worse for her.
“During the summertime, I usually take that time to try to go out and do things, but this past summer I really did nothing,” Szalkowski said.
Szalkowski also said it had been difficult for her to make new friends during this time. Because she has not been on campus since the pandemic started, and that is where she usually had tried to make new friends, she just has not had the same opportunities as before COVID-19. She happily said that keeping in touch with her closest friends has not been a problem for her.
Chiarello said that isolation and loneliness have been much greater problems for her now. She has found her sleeping patterns are much different from what they used to be before the pandemic.
“I go to sleep really late, I noticed, and wake up super early in the morning. The next night I won’t be able to fall asleep at a normal hour because I am sleeping throughout the day,” Chiarello said. “I used to be able to fall asleep easily because I knew I had school in the morning, but now with a more open schedule, I can’t.”
everyday feels the same
Chiarello said that she feels many people around her age feel something comparable to her, and more specifically, she knows her sister and most of her friends are feeling the same way as her.
“Even classmates feel a similar way. When I join classes people will speak up about how they are feeling and will talk about their lack of motivation and how everyday feels like it keeps repeating itself,” she said.
Minck believes that the pandemic has been a life-changing stressor for many of the students she works with. Minck feels that students having to negotiate everything about their lives differently, and adding that on top of preexisting mental health concerns can be exhausting. The family and friends students have lost because the pandemic is another major adversity of those who go to the counseling services at SUNY Plattsburgh.
Minck said that before COVID-19, anxiety and depression in young adults were the predominant things she was seeing within her practice, and this has also carried over into the pandemic. However, she adds young adults who are suffering from histories of trauma have been greatly impacted by the pandemic. Minck notes adding a pandemic on top of a history of trauma makes everyday living more complicated for the individual.
She also believes that the longer the pandemic drags on, the harder it is for the students. She also said it makes sense as to why there has been an increase in anxiety and depression in young adults.
“The way we define anxiety is uncertainty, or a feeling of uncertainty and worry. So what has the pandemic caused? It has caused anxiety and uncertainty,” Minck said.
She said the never-ending questions of wariness about the contraction of the virus, new variants of the virus and now vaccinations have caused a constant upheaval for young people. Additionally, Minck said symptoms of depression are too common.
“Depression is a feeling of helplessness. A feeling that there is nothing I can do about certain situations, and a feeling of being stuck,” Minck said.
She said that this is exactly what the pandemic has done to most people, and it is bringing people to their knees. Also, she states if COVID-19 drags longer, the increases will probably get worse.
“Over time, the longer this lasts, the more we are going to see increased anxiety and depression. The impact of that, I don’t think we have even seen what that is going to do in the long run,” Minck said.
Szalkowski said her favorite thing to do is travel, and not being able to do that has made her feel stuck, isolated and lonely. As well, she said that her depression symptoms have undoubtedly increased since the start of the pandemic.
“I don’t really think my anxiety has increased much since this started, it has stayed at a pretty normal amount, but my depression has definitely been up and down because I’m stuck here at my house,” Szalkowski said. “I can’t do anything, I feel like I can’t go anywhere, and I just feel unsafe doing anything.”
“I feel like I am stopping my life because of this, which I guess it is important to stay safe, but it is just so hard,” Szalkowski said.
hope for a more accomodating future
Minck hopes that there will be an increase in counseling services in the future enough to accommodate young adults. She said she believes most who are suffering from mental health concerns right now are using all of their energy to just push through what they have to during the day. They have not realized the ramifications the pandemic has made onto them enough to seek counseling, and are stuck. Due to this Minck believes there will be an influx of individuals coming in for counseling services at SUNY Plattsburgh after most are vaccinated and some homeostasis or normalcy is achieved.
Minck said the pandemic has also brought attention to mental health because significant organizations and agencies are looking into the effects on mental health COVID-19 has caused and are trying to assure constituents and consumers’ mental health needs.
“The focus on mental health concerns, for example the CDC spending time and effort, and recognizing that mental health has been significantly impacted by COVID, is a very positive thing. That helps to destigmatize mental health issues,” Minck said.
Chiarello also believes that one good thing about COVID-19 is how it has brought more attention to mental health in general. She thinks that young adults’ mental health problems were already having most likely just got worse, and some might have new mental health problems because of the pandemic. She feels that, because this is such a hectic, confusing and tiring time for everyone, there will hopefully be more resources acquired and given to help those suffering.
Swalkowski also believes that COVID-19 has brought more attention to mental health. She feels that more people express their concerns for their mental health during this time, whether it is anxiety, depression or something else. As well, that more people are seeking help for things they have never experienced before.
However, she believes that even though COVID-19 has brought attention to mental health concerns, it will not do much to change stigmas around these topics.
“I don’t think mental health in general is understood enough, so I don’t think even something like this will make it any more prominent than it was before,” Swalkowski said.
“I think people look at this topic and just brush it off, maybe thinking the individual is fabricating what they are going through, or doing things for attention. So, I don’t think COVID-19 will change anything about mental health in the future,” Swalkowski said.
Even so, for the time being, Swalkowski feels one of the best ways to get through mental health problems is to have a support system. Having her best friend and her mom to talk to about these things has helped her tremendously.
“Having a support system is probably the most important thing to have, at least for me it has been, during this time. I think everyone who suffers from anxiety and depression needs to have someone who they can talk to, and express their feelings to,” Swalkowski said.
more accessible services for mental health
Minck said the SUNY Plattsburgh counseling services are providing services in a completely new format at the Health Center because of COVID-19. They now offer services via Zoom, and she believes this new outlet of counseling has created easier accessibility for some students to use their services. As a result of offering all of their counseling over Zoom, the Health Center’s no-show rate for appointments has dropped.
Minck then said there other paths students and young adults can look to improve their mental health. She said that support groups are fantastic avenues.
“The research on support groups shows that when you are in a group, and you are hearing from other people who are your peers, that you are not alone in what you are experiencing, and other people feel the same way you do, it has very powerful healing effects for people,” Minck said.
“It’s also very powerful to hear other peoples opinions about how they have handled different situations. You can get ideas from other people on how to cope with things differently, or how to manage things.”
At SUNY Plattsburgh, who offers different support groups every semester, offered to students in isolation and quarantine support groups twice a week.
As well, Minck recommends the SUNY Plattsburgh website for other links and contacts to improve mental health. For example, the website Clam, Headspace, Omvana, and Therapistaid may help relieve mental health problems. They include the phone numbers to the NY State COVID-19 Emotional Support Hotline, NAMI Helpline, and the Federal Disaster Distress Helpline, whose numbers are 844-863-9314, 800-950-6242 and 800-985-5990, respectively.
“The impact is pervasive and it’s very very significant for students,” Minck said.
The effects of COVID-19 have been felt by young adults, in the form of new or increasing mental health concerns. Hopefully, vaccinations will relieve the lack of normalcy felt during this time, and settle nerves and the feeling of being stuck. No one can tell what the future will hold, but young adults can reach out for help. Other numbers to call when in need include the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), the American Psychiatric Association, 703-907-7300, and the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Servies at 800-662-4357.