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By Danna Ramirez and Christopher Shepard

The graduating class of 2020 is entering “young adulthood” as they process the non-traditional conclusion of their academic careers. Numerous college seniors had to finish their schooling virtually and remotely. College seniors who had anticipated their graduation ceremony for years felt that they had lost a pinnacle milestone as virtual graduations swept the nation. Many of these seniors experienced sadness, frustration, and isolation. Additionally, many of the class of 2020 felt under-prepared for the next stage of their lives.

The pandemic hindered the productivity of these recent graduates and jeopardized a smooth transition into young adulthood, potentially impacting their mental health, employment status, economic stability, and overall resources to cope.

What is “young adulthood”?

Emerging adulthood (referred to in this blog as “young adulthood”) is a period of development distinct from adolescence, encompassing the developmental ages of 18 through one’s twenties. An important characteristic of this developmental stage is its demographic variability (e.g., marriage, education, residential status), a reflection of the exploratory quality of this age group. For instance, diversity among this group is reflected by school attendance and career pursuit. Many young adults decide to pursue different academic and vocational paths, with options that include four-year university, community college, trade school, or entry straight into the workforce.

Young adults recently have been shown to postpone mile markers that formerly signified adulthood, such as marriage, financial stability, and homeownership until after they conclude their academic goals and/or further their career goals. These young adults seek to define their role in society, develop relationships, and become emotionally and pragmatically independent from their parents (or support networks). The freedom and opportunity that characterize this life-stage can inflict a great amount of anxiety due to the personal expectations that it can hold. Young adults are thus at risk for psychological distress due to these perceived pressures.  

Mental health and financial health in young adulthood have been impacted by COVID-19.

Prior to the pandemic, 1 in 5 college students experienced one or more diagnosable mental disorders worldwide. The precautionary closure of campuses and opening of virtual schooling negatively impacted many college seniors, potentially inducing or exacerbating existing mental health issues. Increased symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress were observed amongst college students due to this abrupt loss of normalcy and everyday connectivity. The lockdowns that followed led, in many cases, to isolation, loneliness, grief, and uncertainty. These negative emotions appeared to be worse amongst individuals whose primary source of mental health services was school counseling, as many of these services were no longer available to students. 

College seniors also faced the harsh reality that the workforce would be especially difficult to navigate after graduation. Many of them had expectations of a good job and a livable salary that may not be realized. The coronavirus pandemic led to an increase in the unemployment rate of recent college graduates—a 13.3 percent unemployment rate compared to an average of 4 percent in previous years. Many young adults trying to navigate this situation have been forced to choose jobs simply to have an income rather than focusing on finding jobs that match their degree and expertise. The underemployment rate for recent college graduates is 41 percent, meaning they are working in jobs that do not require their hard-earned college degree.

Individuals struggling with unemployment or underemployment may attribute their shortcomings to themselves, which can lead to self-judgment and diminished self-perception. While young adulthood can be defined by self-exploration, reflection, and discovery, it can also be accompanied by a fear of failure and uncertainty, especially now.  

How can young adults find resilience right now?

The negative impact of the pandemic continues to influence the daily lives of recent graduates and there is no stated end in sight. It is vital for young adults to connect to helping professionals, community resources, and/or internal resources to improve coping and well-being given their newfound struggles. A few strategies that might prove useful include:

  • Connect to mental health services. Whether it be talk therapy, medication management, or support groups, mental health services are useful to cope with stress, anxiety, and depression.
  • Listen to podcasts. Do a search for a topic that might validate or explain what you’re going through (e.g., unemployment, family conflict, finding happiness, shame management)
  • Dabble in the technology everyone’s talking about. While Zoom, TikTok, Reels, or Teams might seem exhausting, they can ultimately connect people and help on the job.
  • Spend time doing self-care activities. Try out yoga, meditation, or journaling.  
  • Take time to do what you enjoy. Take a break to run, dance, cook, or watch a show on Netflix.
  • Read. Something new or something old.
  • Discuss shared experiences with your peers, classmates, and new coworkers. Common humanity is crucial right now.
  • Create routine. Knowing what to expect in a world of uncertainty can alleviate distress.

Lastly, for help with one of the primary signifiers of young adulthood—a vocation—young adults should be active in networking and professional groups that match their desired career plan. Many of these groups are still in communication and very active. Some young adults choose to further their educations with online certificate programs or continuing education to set them apart in a crowded job field. Some find it helpful to work with a career counselor to update or revamp a resume or provide tips and tricks for job applications.

About the Authors

Danna Ramirez is the Clinical Research Informatics Engineer at The Menninger Clinic. She graduated from Baylor University with a Bachelor of Science in Neuroscience and Forensic Sciences. Her research interests include the neurobiology of psychiatric disorders, especially personality disorders and mood disorders. 

Christopher Shepard is a Senior Research Coordinator at The Menninger Clinic. His research interests include sleep disorders, suicidal behavior, and emerging adulthood.

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