The Mental Health Epidemic in Young Adults
For a while, things went as planned for 23-year-old Macy Michaels.
“I graduated from my undergrad degree and went [straight] into grad school with no break,” she said. “[I] graduated, got a great job that I wanted, and a month in or so I was like, Well now what? It has honestly been eating me up overall because I feel like I’m not good enough, which is totally ridiculous. But I still don’t feel satisfied. It’s just that I’ve been doing so many things and [feel] pressured to do so many things all this time. Now that I have a normal workload—quite honestly, I feel lost.”
The pressure to succeed—and to reflect that success on social media—is perhaps one of many causes for a decade-long spike in the number of young people experiencing serious psychological distress.
Mental health issues have always been present in adults, but the number of adults aged 18 to 25 who experienced serious psychological distress increased by 71 percent between the years 2008 and 2017, according to a study published by the American Psychological Association. Notably, the rates of mental health problems among adults aged 20 to 21 increased by 78 percent during the same time period.
Social media has had an obvious effect on not only young adults, but all age groups. Millennials, though, grew up during the rise of social media. According to the American Psychological Association, the increase in adolescent mental health issues began after 2011—the same time smartphones became ubiquitous.
Michaels, who works full-time for a PR agency, views social media as having detrimental effects on one’s mental health.
“Social media is absolutely everywhere, and everyone is completely submerged in it all the time,” Michaels said. “It’s a different dynamic because people can’t really escape it. I find that I can’t really look at a photo without being like, Oh, maybe I should get an outfit like that or Wow, I wish I had hair like that. You always want what you don’t have, and I feel that social media constantly reminds you of that.”
Similar to Michaels, 23-year-old Ahmed Alrawi believes that social media enables social comparisons and magnifies income inequality and privilege.
As someone who works in the technology field, Alrawi is surrounded by those fairly older than him and sees firsthand the differences between the two age groups. He admitted that when he does meet someone his age or younger, it makes him realize this generation possesses troubling qualities relating to mental health.
“A lot more of them have gone through anxiety or depression …I was in a relationship with someone who had anxiety and it messes you up in a sense. It’s not easy to treat—not everyone wants to take medication,” Alrawi said. “Your mental health is your operating system; it’s how you function. So, if something is not right, that makes you question yourself or think low of yourself, then it makes life miserable.”
Social media affects the mental health of all age groups, but another factor that primarily affects young adults is college life. For many students, college can cause immense stress, and it’s not just the academics that puts this pressure on young adults.
In a 2018 World Health Organization survey of 14,000 students worldwide, one in three college freshmen reported dealing with mental health disorders leading up to college.
Michaels personally experienced the pressure college can have on a student—especially as a graduate student.
“I really, really struggled in grad school because there’s a lot of pressure; you’re biting off more than you chew in all aspects of life,” she reflected. “You’re trying to please everyone—you’re trying to please your parents and make them proud; you’re trying to please your friends and enjoy go[ing] out; and you’re trying to meet your requirements and do your own personal best for yourself. There is a lot of pressure in college to do everything, but those pressures are coming from so many different places [that] you almost do everything at once.”
College is not always an option or desire for everyone, but the pressure of success is still greatly felt. Jeremy Leos, a 21-year-old originally from Texas who is currently seeking a career in makeup design, has a different mindset as someone that made the decision to jump right into his field.
“From outside of being in college, lately I’ve been feeling that it gives you a path,” Leos said. “But the problem with college is that it’s a lot of pressure; it’s a lot of money. Basically, what your early twenties become is your college life because you’re having to work all the time to actually be successful.”
Leos, like many his age, has struggled with the pressure that comes with trying to be successful.
Kanishk Gandhi, a 23-year-old NYU graduate student originally from India, has a similar view on the pressure millennials feel to be successful and to do so quickly.
“From the very beginning we’ve been told that we can achieve anything you want to; there’s no limit to what you want to achieve,” he said. “We lack the patience of gradual growth, and this makes us want to create an impact as early as possible—before we’re even 30.”
With this mentality of striving for success at a young age, millennials tend to have trouble slowing down. This leads to the question of whether satisfaction is even achievable and how it affects mental health.
Alrawi does not necessarily see this “checklist” as a bad thing.
“If you’re in your twenties or thirties, you should work hard—you shouldn’t be satisfied,” he stated. “You should be striving to do everything you can because you are at the peak of your energy and maturity—not wisdom, but maturity in the [sense] of that you can do [any]thing and think in anyway. You should give it all you got.”
Mental health issues have been normalized over the past 10 years, but Kateri Matteson, a 22-year-old Hunter graduate student, doesn’t necessarily think this is always a good thing.
“I think now it’s almost becoming fetishized to have a mental health problem,” Matteson said. “I went to a party one time and there was a bunch of people bonding over what anti-anxiety medication they take. There’s a sense of community around [mental illness] which can be good, but the point isn’t to relish in the mental illness—it’s to have it get better.”
Leos’ stance on this issue is comparable to Matteson’s.
“I’m not going to lie—everyone has to go through their own shit,” he said. “I think there’s an easy way out for some of them. That’s not always the case; there are people that have actual situations. We joke about negativity so much, so it’s easy to [be like,] I have this and that. Everybody has anxieties about things, but anxiety is an actual disorder. You can feel anxious about something but that doesn’t mean you should be diagnosed with it.”
As younger millennials continue to further understand their own mental health and the stressors that can cause sharp increases in psychological distress, it’s important to take it one day at a time and find ways to alleviate the constant pressure many adults endure.