The coronavirus pandemic has taxed America’s mental health system over the past year and one thing is clear: young adults are having the hardest time coping out of any age group.
Loneliness, anxiety and depression are putting extra pressure on the group at a time in their lives that’s already typically filled with disruption.
If you’re experiencing a mental health emergency, please call 911 or the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text the hotline at 208-389-4357. For those not in crisis, more resources are available at the end of this story.
In the very early stages of the coronavirus pandemic last year, University of Idaho student Megan Kent had a sense that something was wrong.
The coronavirus began spreading outside China, including South Korea where Kent planned to study abroad later that spring. But she said no one she knew in the U.S. took the threat seriously at the time.
“I was talking to my friends saying, ‘There's a pandemic over there, there's a disease going around. I don't know if I'll be able to go.’ Everybody was like, ‘Oh, it'll blow over. No big deal,’” Kent said.
But the coronavirus didn’t blow over. As of Monday afternoon, the disease had killed at least 555,000 Americans, and 2.85 million people worldwide.
By the end of March, all classes at U of I went online while Kent was living in Boise with her parents, waiting to hear if she’d still be able to fly to Asia.
“I felt like a sitting duck,” she sad. “I didn't see anybody. I didn't talk to anybody. I still had friends who were abroad at that time. So, it was a lot of anxiety over, oh, how are they doing? Are they feeling well?”
Kent never made it to South Korea to fulfill a graduation requirement for her undergraduate degree in international studies. It’ll take the 22-year-old an extra year to get her diploma, while her friends will get theirs come May.
In the meantime, she said it’s been a struggle to stay motivated and keep on top of a large workload given by professors who tell students they have more time to complete it amid the pandemic.
“This year, my GPA, my grades, my work ethic has just plummeted. I'm not turning in work because I'm depressed and sad.”
She still holds a part-time job in Moscow, but many of her days feel the same.
“I wake up, hop on my computer, go to class in my pajamas. There’s no interaction anymore. I don't get to see my classmates. I don't get to see my professors, even sometimes,” said Kent. “It's just sitting and staring at a screen all day.”
Kent started seeing a counselor to help cope with these feelings and she isn’t alone in experiencing them.
A recent survey by the CDC found more than 40% of adults in the U.S. felt anxious or depressed within the last seven days – 5% higher than just a few months ago.
But that difference was even starker for those between 18-29. The report found 57% of them reported anxiety or depression within the last week – 8% higher than in the previous survey.
Matt Niece, Director of Counseling Services at Boise State University, said students, faculty and staff alike have come in with similar concerns.
“Loneliness is a big one – not just social loneliness like social distancing and staying away from each other, but emotional loneliness,” Niece said.
Appointments are up between 40-50% now compared to the 2018-2019 academic year.
On the plus side, he said the center’s no-show and cancellation rates have almost disappeared.
Lockdowns, hybrid classes, social distancing are all coming at a time when young people are still discovering who they are as a person. That’s why, Niece said, it can be so hard for them to adjust to the pandemic.
“When I don’t have a strong sense of self and I’m really grounded in that identity, then I’m more susceptible to the disruptions of relationships and what information exists out there and what I should be doing or how I should be thinking, how I should be acting,” he said.
Twenty-three-year-old Andrew Rose has been in therapy since he was a freshman in high school. He says the pandemic heightened his symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD.
“I just couldn't get the thought out of my head that the virus might claim family members, especially my parents and that I probably wouldn't even be able to see them before it happened,” Rose said.
Some of that anxiety stemmed from his living situation.
He had one roommate, who he said didn’t take the pandemic as seriously as he did. He also lived with his brother, whose friends had a hard time with the lockdown.
“And the way that they chose to cope was to kind of live in denial and have a kind of one long, perpetual end of the world party,” Rose said.
He eventually moved to Boise last May where he works part-time while studying political science at College of Western Idaho.
Rose said he’s struggled at times with drinking too much, but that his symptoms eventually improved.
He joined Everytown for Gun Safety, a group that advocates for more restrictions on firearms. Rose’s brother died by suicide when he was younger and he said the group has helped him cope better.
“I've come face to face with that particular trauma and that grief in the past year in a way that I don't know if I ever thought I would.”
But that sense of relief comes at a price.
Rose said he feels a sort of survivor’s guilt for not suffering as badly as others have during the pandemic.
“Innumerable lives have been ruined in innumerable ways. So, I guess for those reasons, I do still feel some measure of guilt that I have been able to derive so many positives out of this awful situation,” he said.
But there is hope. Millions of vaccines administered every day in the U.S. could signal the drawdown of the pandemic.
Rose has been fully vaccinated and recently got to hug his parents while on spring break at their home in Oregon.
However, counselors like Niece from Boise State feel the country’s future mental health needs will be ongoing.
“The mental health impact of this pandemic has a tail on it that we cannot see the end of,” he said.
That’s true for Kent at University of Idaho. She used to hug people she just met to say hello or goodbye, but said she’s afraid that will no longer be welcomed or accepted.
“Nobody stands close to each other anymore. And I don't think that's ever going to change,” she said.
For now, she sees a future where talking to strangers will be nerve-wracking and connections with new people will be fewer and far between.
Community mental health resources:
Mental health resources for students:
- Boise State University
- College of Idaho
- College of Eastern Idaho
- College of Southern Idaho
- College of Western Idaho
- Idaho State University
- Lewis-Clark State College
- North Idaho College
- Northwest Nazarene University
- University of Idaho
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