Young adults suffer from anxiety, depression twice as often as teens

Young adults in the United States experience anxiety and depression twice as frequently as teenagers, according to a new nationally representative survey by Making Caring Common, a project of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Thirty-six percent of young adults — ages 18 to 25 — reported anxiety, compared with 18 percent of younger teenagers — ages 14 to 17 — while 29 percent felt depression, compared with 15 percent in the younger age group in the survey.

Many in this cohort of young adults launched a career or entered college amid a pandemic and turbulent economy, and are now grappling with high housing prices, a lack of connection in the workplace, world disasters, misinformation exacerbated by social media and an epidemic of loneliness across generations.

Madeline Armstrong, 22, of Lake Havasu City, Ariz., experienced suicidal depression, anorexia and anxiety during college, culminating in psychiatric hospitalization in her junior year. She recovered through therapy and appropriate medicine but it’s still tough.

“It’s hard to be happy and focus on the positive things when I’m just struggling to get by and living paycheck to paycheck,” said Armstrong, who’s considering cutting back on therapy because of the $400 monthly cost on top of student loan debt — both straining her low salary as an assistant newspaper editor.

She and her peers are tackling these challenges with fewer resources for support than younger teens, who have multiple daily contacts with parents, caregivers, teachers and mentors in their schools. While public health and attention has focused on the crisis of mental health among teenagers since the pandemic, 20-somethings have received less attention and fewer resources.

“Young adults have slipped off our radar,” said Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist and director of Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project. “They’re not front and center in our concerns about mental health, and they should be.”

  • Several worries affected the mental health of young adults, including finances (56 percent); pressure to achieve (51 percent); a lack of direction (50 percent) and a sense of things falling apart (45 percent).
  • Gender had an effect. More women reported mental health challenges — 41 percent (anxiety) and 35 percent (depression) — than men (31 percent and 24 percent).
  • Race had an impact. White young adults faced the highest rates of anxiety (38 percent), followed by Hispanic, Black and Asian American young adults (37, 35 and 20 percent, respectively). For depression, Black people reported the highest rate (35 percent), followed by Hispanics, Whites and Asian Americans (32, 28 and 21 percent, respectively).
  • Sexual orientation mattered, too. Young LGBTQ+ people experienced more anxiety and depression (39 and 37 percent, respectively) than straight people (33 percent and 26 percent). But lesbians experienced the lowest rates of mental illness, at 28 percent.
  • Having a higher income meant less anxiety and depression. Nearly half of young adults earning less than $30,000 annually experienced anxiety vs. about 29 percent for those earning $60,000 or more. Thirty-six percent of people in the lowest earnings bracket experienced depression compared with 20 percent for those making over $100,000.

The survey drew on the responses of 1,853 individuals — including 396 teens, 709 young adults, and 748 parents or caregivers — to about 50 questions about the pressures on their mental health, social media use, relationships and sources of support, views of their parents and schools, and their values and behaviors.

Conducted in December 2022, the survey used two widely accepted sets of questions that health-care providers use to assess anxiety and depression.

The high levels of mental illness reflect the current challenging conditions for entering adulthood, whether that means college, a vocation, the military or another path. Housing affordability has dropped to the lowest levels in four decades, as home sale prices and rents climbed but personal income has failed to keep pace.

Meanwhile, the cost of health care, electricity and even groceries has risen. For the first time since the Great Depression, the most common living arrangement for people in their 20s is with one or both parents.

“Transitioning to independence and to adulthood has been pretty hard for our young people nowadays,” said Christine Crawford, a psychiatrist and associate medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “There are a lot of concerns that have to do with finances, as well as uncertainty about what their future could bring.”

“Transitioning to independence and to adulthood has been pretty hard for our young people nowadays,” said Christine Crawford, a psychiatrist and associate medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “There are a lot of concerns that have to do with finances, as well as uncertainty about what their future could bring.”

Gabriel Mitchell, 25, graduated from George Mason University in the first months of the pandemic, with a degree in psychology. The subsequent years marked a search for direction and stability. He misses being surrounded by peers, but going out and socializing costs money.

“When you’re a kid, you’re sold on the American Dream where you get a house, partner, dog and kids,” said Mitchell, who lives in Gaithersburg, Md., with a roommate. “That’s not realistic for most of us. It’s tough and stressful to deal with prices skyrocketing; they keep going up rapidly.”

When his post-graduation career training fell through, he stumbled into a role as an in-home behavior technician for children with autism and in April 2022 took a job as a case manager. Next month, he will start a similar job with Fairfax County, supporting elderly adults with disabilities. He’s relieved to have found a sense of purpose, more than 2½ years after graduating college, but he is nervous about the looming expense when he leaves his parents’ health insurance at age 26.

Other peers haven’t found their path.

Eliza Braverman, 24, grew up in Bethesda, Md., and graduated from Oberlin College in 2021. After moving to Mexico to teach, where she knew nobody, she began to experience social anxiety and general sadness — an unfamiliar experience after strong support networks in childhood and college.

“Having that stability uprooted was really challenging,” said Braverman, who recently quit her job and is rethinking her career. “I felt more lonely than I ever have in my life.”

This cohort launched into adulthood amid a pandemic, warnings of climate disaster and news of political infighting, violence and war. About 35 percent of survey respondents cited each of the following causes for negative mental health: friendship stressors, crime rates, romantic stressors, abortion bans and climate change.

Armstrong lives with her boyfriend, Jacob Lewis, 21, who also experiences anxiety and depression. “My generation is struggling because we’ve been born into this world, where we don’t have any control,” said Lewis, citing money worries, climate change and difficulty meeting his physical and mental health needs.

Chris Rivas, 24, lives with his parents in Cypress, Tex., and drives for DoorDash. It’s not where he expected to be after graduating from high school and trying out careers in the mortgage industry and then music, nor is it where his parents were when they were his age. He feels inadequate both by comparison to older adults and to influencers his age who tout their riches on social media.

“Feeling like it’s difficult to land a job that other people have been able to land so easily adds to my financial worries,” Rivas said.

Other drivers of anxiety and depression on the survey included lacking skills or talents (44 percent), family stressors (43 percent), school gun violence (42 percent) and choice overload (40 percent). About 30 percent of survey respondents cited each of corrupt politicians, misinformation, social media and incivility.

“The disarray and corruption and polarization and inability to solve really urgent problems is disillusioning for young people,” Weissbourd said. “Young people in our survey seem to have quite a bit of faith in each other to solve problems, but not a lot of faith in older adults.”

Long waiting lists for college counseling centers exacerbate the problem, said Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and author of “You and Your Adult Child.”

“If you’re financially strained to begin with, and you need treatment because you’re depressed or anxious, and your insurance doesn’t cover it or only minimally covers it, you’re in a real bind,” Steinberg said, noting that parents are financially supporting more of their young 20-somethings than two decades ago.

Ways to address mental health concerns

The decline of community support and engagement with religious institutions exacerbates the loneliness and lack of direction, Weissbourd said. “There are structures and traditions in religion that are very important to people, that make them feel that they’re part of a larger humanity that give them coordinates in space and time,” he said.

Young people who do find purpose experience motivation, positivity and drive, according to research by William Damon, a professor and director of Stanford University’s Center on Adolescence. “It takes a while to really develop that and commit to that, especially in today’s world,” Damon said.

College and vocational employers should do more to engage and support people ages 18 to 25 in finding purpose, developing career skills and achieving independence. “A lot of educators in colleges are not doing the kind of mentoring that people are needing,” he said, noting a decline in trust of the world of work generally. “That has an effect on morale, hope, aspiration.”

Peer support can be an important complement to traditional therapy, said Laura Horne, chief program officer for Active Minds, a national mental health nonprofit group. Active Minds, in partnership with MTV, released a tool that teaches peer support through the ASK rubric: acknowledge, support and keep in touch. Other options include ShareWell and

“There’s a lot of history in communities healing ourselves,” Horne said. “That’s what we need more of in the U.S.”

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