PHOENIX — The coronavirus pandemic has taken a harsh toll on the mental health of young Americans, according to a new poll that finds adults under 35 especially likely to report negative feelings or experience physical or emotional symptoms associated with stress and anxiety.
A majority of Americans ages 18 through 34 — 56% — say they have at least sometimes felt isolated in the past month, compared with about 4 in 10 older Americans, according to the latest COVID Response Tracking Study conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. Twenty-five percent of young adults rate their mental health as fair or poor, compared with 13% of older adults, while 56% of older adults say their mental health is excellent or very good, compared with just 39% of young adults.
In the midst of the pandemic, young adults are navigating life transitions such as starting college and finding jobs, all without being able to experience normal social activities that might be especially essential for people who are less likely to have already married and started their own families. Some young people are just beginning their adult lives amid a recession, and older members of the group are already experiencing their second.
Christina Torres, 32, a middle school teacher in Honolulu, had to postpone her June wedding and was not able to travel to her grandmother’s funeral in California because of the pandemic. She misses being able to deal with stress by going to the gym and getting together with friends.
“And so it’s hard to not feel really hopeless sometimes, especially because the numbers keep going up," she said.
The study found that younger Americans also consistently show higher rates of psychosomatic symptoms, like having trouble sleeping, getting headaches or crying, compared to other age groups. The likelihood of experiencing such symptoms decreases with age.
The results are surprising because people who are considered most at risk normally report more mental health symptoms, and older adults are more likely to become seriously ill from the coronavirus, said Tom Smith, who has directed NORC's General Social Survey since 1980. The numbers also contrast with stories about some younger people gathering for large parties, seemingly unafraid of the risk pose by the virus, he said.
One possible explanation could be that young adults have less experience dealing with a public health crisis, said Smith, 71, who grew up being told not to play in the dirt because of the risk of contracting polio.
"This experience facing a pandemic is completely new for most younger adults,” he said.
Torres thought some of the hardship her generation is experiencing now could be attributed to their lack of historical context, compared with her parents' generation.
“So it kind of feels like, oh my God, can this get any worse? When is it going to get better?" she said. "It doesn’t feel like it’s going to get better.”
Young adults also face constant exposure to social media, which could make negative feelings about the virus even worse. The survey found that frequently watching, reading or talking about the virus is consistently linked with higher rates of negative mental health symptoms.
Wayne Evans, 18, a freshman at North Carolina State University studying remotely after being sent home because of virus cases at the school, said social media provided daily reminders of COVID-19.
“In some ways social media has added to my stressors, yes. Just the information overload that’s unavoidable on social media platforms can be distracting,” he said.
The survey found 67% of young adults, but just 50% of those older, say they have at least sometimes felt that they were unable to control the important things in life. And 55% of 18 to 34 year olds say they have felt difficulties piling up too high to overcome, compared with 33% of older adults.
In Arizona, Desiree Eskridge, 17, decided to study remotely in California for her first year at Northern Arizona University partly because she did not want to risk spreading COVID-19 to her family, which is prone to sickness. She also worried she would get sick and have to pay back a student loan for a semester she could not finish on the campus.
She did move into her grandparents’ house so she could still be more on her own. She relies on friends who are living on campus and taking the same classes to explain things she did not quite understand during lectures and has to schedule extra Zoom appointments with her professors for additional help.
“It’s extremely stressful, but me being home makes it a little easier because I can do it all in my own time and my own space and I don’t have to be in this new environment where I have to learn everything all over,” she said.
The survey of 2,007 adults was conducted July 22-August 10 with funding from the National Science Foundation. It uses a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.