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A distressed student rubs her eyes

Nearly three in five young adults said that they’ve experienced a lack of “meaning or purpose” in the last month.

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Young adults in the U.S. are reporting feelings of anxiety and depression twice as frequently as teenagers, according to a recent report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Thirty-six percent of young adults, age 18 to 25, reported having anxiety, compared with 18 percent of teens, age 14 to 17. Similarly, 29 percent of young adults and 15 percent of teens reported feelings of depression.

The study was conducted in December 2022 as part of the School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project. It identified several key drivers of young adults’ emotional challenges, including finances (56 percent), pressure to achieve (51 percent) and a perception that the world is unraveling (45 percent). Social media was lower on the list of influential factors; it only drove anxiety and depression among 28 percent of young adults.

But one of the most concerning influences of negative mental health, according to the report, was the lack of “meaning or purpose,” an emotional void nearly three in five young adults (58 percent) reported that they personally felt in the previous month. Half of the young people surveyed also reported feeling a “lack of direction” in their lives.

Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist and director of the project, said that he and his team “had a hunch” going into the report that young adults weren’t doing well but still found the results “alarming.”

“We are right to be concerned about teens,” Weissbourd said. “But my hope is that this report would put young adults front and center in the conversation about mental health.”

An Underresearched Age Group

The report was based on a nationally representative survey of 1,853 individuals, including 396 teens, 709 young adults and 748 parents or caregivers. It measured anxiety and depression using two screening tools widely used by researchers and recommended by clinicians. The questions focused on perceived stressors, sense of self, hope, social media uses, help-seeking, relationships and general attitudes, values and behaviors.

Among the young adults surveyed, about 10 percent more women reported mental health challenges than men. And while members of the LGBTQ+ population generally experienced more anxiety and depression (ranging from 45 to 61 percent) than heterosexuals (38 percent), lesbian respondents experienced the lowest rates of mental illness (28 percent).

Low-income students also demonstrated higher rates of mental health challenges than their affluent peers, with 48 percent of young adults earning less than $30,000 per year reporting anxiety, compared to 28 percent who earned $100,000 or more; the differences in rates of depression were 36 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

While the study’s data are not longitudinal, Weissbourd noted that a review of other reports over the last 30 to 40 years indicate that rates of anxiety and depression among young adults may have always been high and are only continuing to climb.

But Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and former president of the Society for Research on Adolescence, noted that there is not a lot of mental health research on this age group, especially when compared to teenagers. He noted this is partially because it is more difficult to get young adults who did not go to college or who have graduated and are no longer in a structured institution to respond to surveys.

In addition to the lack of research, Steinberg also suggests that less attention has been paid to mental health in young adults because they don’t receive the same level of direct contact with parents and teachers who can advocate for them.

Even despite a growing expanse of mental health services on college campuses across the country, and a push from the Department of Education to put COVID relief funds toward mental health, a general sense of isolation remains persistent, as 34 percent of young adults reported experiencing loneliness.

“College counseling centers are overwhelmed,” Steinberg said.

‘A Mythologizing of Young Adulthood’

Weissbourd also suggested that there is a greater cultural awareness of the challenges of adolescence than early adulthood.

“That’s sort of a trope in our culture, that adolescence is a stormy and difficult time. Kids are moody,” he said. “I think there’s a mythologizing of young adulthood. It can be a wonderful time that’s exciting and full of possibility, but it’s also these days a really stressful, difficult time for a lot of young people.”

William Damon, a professor and director of Stanford University’s Center on Adolescence, has focused much of his research on people’s sense of purpose. He said that feelings of lack of meaning and purpose have a particularly intense influence on the mental health of young adults because of societal norms associated with this period of life. “It’s not really expected, when you’re 15 years old, to have figured out a direction in life or something you’re committed to,” Damon said. “But by the time they’re young adults … there’s a lot of pressure to figure out what you want to be studying and what kind of career that’s going to lead to.”

Steinberg also pointed to financial challenges as being closely tied to age.

“Because of the financial strain, it’s very difficult for young people to find housing that they can afford, and that disrupts their entry into the labor force,” he said. “Conventionally, at that age, when people talk about sources of meaning and purpose, they’re often talking about school and work. If those are difficult to engage in because of the financial crisis, then of course it’s going to be reflected in a lack of meaning and purpose.”

Young adults are also aware of the tribulations in the world. Forty-two percent reported the negative influence of gun violence in schools on their mental health, 34 percent cited climate change and 30 percent cited worries that political leaders are incompetent or corrupt. These are driving forces that Erica Riba, director of strategic higher education initiatives at the Jed Foundation, a nationally recognized suicide-prevention organization, said were only intensified by the pandemic.

“There was so much pain happening with COVID. A lot of lives lost, a lot of misinformation and uncertainty, a lot of ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen next,’” Riba said. “Students are still finding their way back, and we must help them.”

A Call for Preventative Measures

Experts noted that while there has been a growing national conversation about the need for responsive mental health services, there has not been enough focus on preventative measures.

“There’s so much to be stressed and anxious and depressed about right now that young people do not have any control over,” Steinberg said. “In addition to treating the problems, we need to think about preventing them. We’re going to have to work harder to teach young people ways of coping with stress effectively and in a healthy fashion.”

The report provides three main prevention strategies for colleges and universities including cultivating meaning and purpose by engaging students in community service activities, supporting them in developing gratifying and durable relationships, and helping them experience their lives as more than the sum of their achievements. All these strategies revolve around acknowledging something larger than oneself.

“Purpose involves an act of commitment to something in the world. And it’s something in the world that isn’t all about me, it’s not all about the self,” Damon said. “When you have that purposeful orientation, it prevents you from being self-absorbed and always worrying about yourself, being anxious and looking inward and saying, ‘Am I all right?’”

“It’s a pre-emptive mental orientation that leads to a positive outlook on life,” he added.

While the report doesn’t advocate for or against a religion-based approach to supporting mental health, it does note that those belonging to any religion were more likely to report feeling their life has meaning or purpose (47 percent) than atheists (34 percent) and agnostics (32 percent).

“Religious communities can provide you with a meta story, can give you a sense of meaning, a place across geographic boundaries and time,” Weissbourd said. “So I’m not again saying we should become more religious, but we should think about how we create some of these aspects of religion in secular life.”

Some American college and university leaders are increasingly concerned about fostering a sense of belonging on their campuses and encouraging students to think beyond grades and career aspirations and instead consider how to make the world a better place or solve some of the biggest social problems of the times. Some colleges are now focusing on deepening mentor relationships between students and advisers, fostering community on campus by hiring directors of unity and belonging to lead such initiatives, and connecting coursework with real-world applications.

The report is a call to action for higher ed leaders to better address the troubling factors that leave students feeling adrift and to make policies and programs that support their emotional well-being standard practice, Riba said.

“We know students are asking these questions about purpose and meaning,” she said. “So how are we listening to them? How are we incorporating spaces for these conversations to deepen our understanding?”

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