How to Help Young Adults Struggling With Mental Health Issues

Young Adults

Some years after the turn of the millennium, “adult” suddenly became a verb—an umbrella term to describe the various tasks that “grown-ups” are expected to perform, like paying the bills, running errands, tackling chores around the house, and working a steady job. But these supposedly basic to-dos can feel like gargantuan endeavors among young adults who struggle with mental health issues. And, while young adults are seeking psychiatric help in greater numbers than ever, they are also more in need of that help than in generations past.

 

While taking steps toward treatment for more Americans is always positive, it also begs the question of why young adults are struggling at higher numbers than ever—and what we can do to help them through their younger years. Click To Tweet

YOUNG ADULTS FACE MORE MENTAL HEALTH STRUGGLES THAN EVER

In September 2022, results were released from the National Health Interview Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), examining mental health trends from 2019 to 2021. The percentage of adults ages 18 to 44 who had received any mental health treatment (e.g., counseling, medication, or therapy) in the previous 12 months increased in those years, rising from 18.5% to 23.2%. Women were more likely than men to have received treatment, and these numbers rose most noticeably in non-Hispanic White (from 23.8% to 30.4%) and non-Hispanic Asian (from 6.0% to 10.8%) adults. This increase was reflected in communities of various sizes, not only in large metropolitan areas.

While taking steps toward treatment for more Americans is always positive, it also begs the question of why young adults are struggling at higher numbers than ever—and what we can do to help them through their often-tumultuous younger years. Naturally, the COVID-19 pandemic has played a critical role in mental health and overall stress. A study published in April 2022 noted that young adults’ (ages 18 to 25) anxiety and depression symptoms increased over pre-pandemic levels, according to findings from a national Household Pulse Survey taken from June to July 2021. Ultimately, 48% of young adults reported experiencing mental health symptoms, but only 39% received treatment, while 36% reported that their needs for mental health counseling and/or therapy were going unmet.

However, looking back at a longer stretch of time to review mental health trends among young adults, we can see that these numbers were growing even before the pandemic turned many Americans’ worlds upside-down. According to research published in 2019 by the American Psychological Association (APA), the percentage of young Americans experiencing certain types of mental health disorders had risen significantly over the past decade.

The APA findings, generated from survey responses from more than 200,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 from 2005 to 2017, and almost 400,000 adults ages 18 and over from 2008 to 2017, showed a 52% increase in reported depression symptoms in the previous 12 months among adolescents, and 63% among young adults (ages 18 to 25). There was also a 71% increase in young adults experiencing serious psychological distress in the previous 30 days, while the rate of young adults with suicidal thoughts or other suicide-related issues increased by 47% from 2008 to 2017. In contrast, older adults did not report higher levels of depression or psychological distress over these time periods, with those older than 65 even showing a slight decline. The lead author of the study speculated that cultural shifts, such as a move from in-person to online socializing, more screen time, and less sleep, may have contributed to these changes in younger populations.

SUPPORTING YOUNG ADULTS THROUGH MENTAL HEALTH CHALLENGES

If you know a young adult who is struggling with mental health issues, there are several steps you can take to help. First, open the topic of conversation directly, but gently. If you’ve noted behavior that points toward mental health struggles—such as changes in weight or sleep, or loss of interest in activities—you can calmly note the changes and why you’re concerned. Or, if nothing immediately stands out but you want to do a “temperature check” on their overall mental health, you can simply ask open-ended questions: How are you feeling mentally and emotionally lately? What are your biggest mental health challenges right now? How are you currently coping with life stressors? You can point out that older adults struggle with mental health, too—knowing that no one is immune can help young adults feel less alone.

When the young adult is answering your questions (or when sharing struggles without being asked), use active listening skills, which means paying full attention to verbal and nonverbal cues and even repeating what you have heard to reflect their experiences back to them. Rather than lecturing, criticizing, or stepping in to “fix” the problem, you can say something like, “That sounds so difficult. I’m sorry you’re experiencing those challenges right now.”

While it may be an appropriate choice to share occasional helpful information on the topic(s) they are struggling with (resist the urge to bombard them with “help”), allow the young person to work through their challenges at their own pace. Over time, lending a nonjudgmental ear will enable more trust and encourage their willingness to share. You’ll also want to talk about subjects outside of mental health so that the person knows they are more than their condition. Avoid being too forceful about their need to seek help, but also be willing to help out with options for treatment, should they decide that’s the best path for them.

YOUNG ADULTS AND PTSD

In cases of PTSD after a traumatic incident—a condition that’s estimated to affect 1 in 30 American adults each year, with a much higher prevalence among veterans—a young adult may experience debilitating effects. (PTSD also increased during the pandemic.) These can include intense, distressing memories of the event; increased or excessive anxiety; trouble sleeping; anger and irritability; depression symptoms; and social isolation. Learn all you can about this issue, and understand that talking about these events can be next to impossible and should be worked out with a mental health professional. If help is desired, you may offer to go along with them, for support, to a psychiatrist, therapist, or VA clinic. Let them know you’re willing to listen—if and when they’re ready—and be patient.

Finally, encourage community connection among young adults, who can lack in-person exposure. Many mental health struggles can feel less intimidating when shared with a community of people who are going through similar challenges. It can also add joy, fun, and laughter to life among populations (such as those with depression or PTSD) who may have a tendency to isolate. Physical activities, like walking, riding bikes, or yoga—done with a buddy or a group—offer a double benefit of face-to-face social time and exercise, which helps reduce stress and the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Even in cases when all hope seems lost, cutting-edge technologies like brain SPECT imaging studies can find the root causes of mental health issues that may have been overlooked by other professionals—and can help determine the appropriate treatment plan to help. Of course, if a young adult is in danger of causing harm to themselves or others, or cannot care for themselves, seek help immediately or call 911.

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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