We’re All Struggling with Depression and Anxiety — But Young People Have It Worst

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Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Back in 1953, Brock Chisholm, a psychiatrist and first Director-General of the World Health Organization, commented, “Without mental health there can be no true physical health.” More than 60 years later, this lesson has never felt more crucial.

Many of us can cite the number of Americans who have died from COVID-19–357,000 right now, with upward of 21 million cases. President-elect Biden recently announced a task force to address the problem. The glaring omission in that task force, as STAT News pointed out, are mental health professionals.

That matters because the pandemic affects mental health as well as physical health, especially for young adults. Almost half of the 18-to-24-year-olds surveyed recently reported significant levels of depression, and anxiety, too, is on the rise. Even before the pandemic, at least one in five American adults were diagnosed with a mental illness each year, and more than half of them did not get effective treatment. Before COVID-19, psychiatrists and other clinicians were burning out at alarmingly high rates. Imagine what will happen in the post-pandemic universe.

Historically, we’ve long privileged physical health over mental wellness. Blame French philosopher-mathematician René Descartes, who popularized mind-body dualism, the idea that what happens in the body stays in the body, and vice versa. We know now that those boundaries are a lot more porous than we thought.

Unfortunately, our health-care system is not set up for this kind of fluidity. Worse, there is a built-in bias that prioritizes physical disorders over mental ones. The very words we use reflect this imbalance. Mental health is often labeled “behavioral,” a term that infuriates me with its connotation of blame.

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h/t Bloomberg Opinion

Since our first lockdown in March, I’ve been informally tracking how the pandemic has affected my students at Syracuse University. About a quarter of the 144 students I taught this semester contracted COVID-19. Another quarter wound up in quarantine. Virtually all of them have struggled with some level of depression and anxiety, from sleeplessness to crying jags, food issues, and panic attacks.

Students have told me they couldn’t get out of bed for a week, or couldn’t stop crying, or couldn’t concentrate. Some have developed eating disorders or seen them worsen. According to a June survey from the Centers for Disease Control, a quarter of those 18 to 24 years old had seriously considered suicide in the previous 30 days. Students, like the rest of us, feel isolated and vulnerable.

These effects are likely to last, especially given the economic shrinkage, the vanishing of potential jobs, and the widespread burdens of illness and death. Adults have the experience to weather both personal and societal periods of depression and even despair; we’ve been through them before and we know they will pass — eventually. Though plenty of adults are struggling too. Young adults don’t have this perspective. They can’t draw on past experiences, so when their hopes for the immediate future dry up they’re vulnerable.

Back in April, after just a month of lockdown, a study in the U.K. tracked steep deteriorations in reports of mental distress, especially among young women. A similar study in JAMA found that in the 18–29-year-old demographic, rates of “psychological distress” climbed from 4 percent in 2018 to 24 percent in 2020.

Most of my students are gone now, sent home to families who themselves are struggling with a laundry list of pandemic side effects ranging from the respiratory to the economic. As a country, we’ll have a long road back to true health. I just hope our national recovery will prioritize our minds as well as our bodies.

Science writer and storyteller. I wrote Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement, Body of Truth, and Brave Girl Eating. I teach Magazineland @NewhouseSU.

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