The Paradox of Young Adulthood
College life and the post-college years can be an exciting time of independence, growth, and new opportunities. However, this unique stage of life, young adulthood, also brings its own distinct challenges and stressors, which can lead to mental health struggles.
Excitement about leaving home to attend college, followed by the excitement of graduation, can quickly be replaced by the disappointment of unmet expectations or unexpected failures and challenges. These transitional seasons of life are often characterized by instability and uncertainty about the future, especially if young adults are navigating family conflict, concerns about finances, lack of access to services, or institutional discrimination.
Worries and expectations related to money, vocation, family, identity, relationships, and job and academic performance—combined with the new freedom, responsibilities, and independence of adult life—can leave young adults feeling chronically stressed out and overwhelmed. Moreover, societal messages that this is supposed to be such a fun and carefree time of life can lead to struggling young adults feeling unseen and unsupported in their pain.
It’s no wonder that with the unique stressors and pressures of this life stage, many young adults experience mental health struggles that impact their daily functioning. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, young adults ages 18-25 have the highest prevalence of mental illness (25.8%) compared to adults in other age categories, and anxiety and depression are the most common mental health concerns faced by young adults in this age group (NIMH, 2019).
A Uniquely Challenging Season of Life
Understanding more about the unique life stage of emerging adulthood can help shed light on why this is such a paradoxical time of both opportunity and struggle for many young adults.
“Emerging adulthood” is a term coined by psychologist Jeffrey Arnett (2014) to describe the life stage between ages 18 to 29, which is characterized by feelings of incongruity and existing “in between” the stages of adolescence and adulthood. Arnett’s research demonstrates that during this time of life, emerging adults are engaged in intensive identity formation and exploration (more so even than during adolescence).
As emerging adults explore issues of identity formation and increase their self-differentiation, they may reject childhood beliefs about faith and spirituality without developing a meaning-making framework to take their place. This, along with other expressions of self-differentiation, may result in increased family tension while still seeking to retain some dependence on their families (Arnett, 2014). Increasing social isolation and separation from family and networks of connection in the transition from adolescence to adulthood can leave emerging adults without a safety net of support. And current COVID-19 social-distancing requirements, while vital and necessary, can also contribute to an increased sense of loneliness, fear, and social disconnection for many young adults.
In the midst of this identity formation and instability, emerging adults may turn to risky behaviors. Some research suggests that several types of risky behavior, such as unprotected sex, substance abuse, and reckless driving (e.g. speeding or driving while intoxicated), peak during ages 18-25, rather than during adolescence as might be commonly assumed (Arnett, 2000).
Emerging adulthood is also a time of possibilities, which can lead to young adults feeling paralyzed and overwhelmed by too many directions they must choose from. They often have not had much practice in making so many decisions at one time. With so many possibilities to consider, their lives enter a time of instability, marked by many transitions, fluctuating relationships, and major decisions about the future.
Hope for the Future
The good news is that despite these challenges, emerging adults consistently show themselves to be brave, resourceful, and resilient. Arnett’s research has found that while this transitional time of life involves some common struggles, overall mental health and wellbeing tend to increase as young adults reach the end of emerging adulthood and find more stability in their personal lives and work and family roles (2014). All in all, the life stage of emerging adulthood can result in positive personal development and growth, including the skills to make independent decisions and accept responsibility for one’s self, increased self-knowledge, and a more stable sense of identity and purpose in life (Arnett, 2014).
So how can you, or a young adult you know, get the necessary support to cope—and even thrive—during this uniquely challenging season of life?
Many young adults try to hide their struggles from friends and family to keep up appearances or avoid disappointment. If this describes your current college or post-college experience, please know that you are not alone, and you are not a failure for acknowledging your struggles and seeking help. You are navigating a challenging and uncertain time of life, and you do not have to grit your teeth and try to struggle along on your own.
If you feel safe doing so, reach out to a trusted friend, mentor, family member, professor, or faith leader to share your struggles and seek support. Isolation is a significant risk factor for mental health, and community support can serve as a protective factor (Rasmussen et al., 2020). Your college counseling center may also be a helpful resource for you, or you can find a compilation of mental health resources for college students and conduct a self-evaluation at www.ulifeline.org/.
There are also many skilled therapists at Cherry Hill Counseling who take joy in working with college students and emerging adults. A professional counselor can offer you safe and nonjudgmental support, help you develop healthy coping skills, assist you in making progress toward your goals, and collaborate with you in finding clarity as you make decisions and navigate relationships during this season of your life.
These years of your life are a unique time of exploration, freedom, and possibility. Now is the perfect time to begin working toward your goals and building skills and habits that will serve you long-term as you move into the future. Your future self will thank you for the time that you invest now in your mental health and wellbeing. Reach out and ask for the support you deserve on your journey.
Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55(5), 469–480.
Arnett, J. J. (2014). Emerging adulthood: The winding road from the late teens through the twenties. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
National Institute of Mental Health (2019). Mental Illness. Retrieved August 3, 2020, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml
Rasmussen, E. E., Punyanunt-Carter, N., LaFreniere, J. R., Norman, M. S., & Kimball, T. G. (2020). The serially mediated relationship between emerging adults’ social media use and mental well-being. Computers in Human Behavior, 102, 206–213. Retrieved August 3, 2020 from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2019.08.019
Chelsea Tatum is an M.A. student in Marriage and Family Therapy at Wheaton College. She also has a B.A. from Wheaton College in English Literature. Prior to pursuing her master’s degree, Chelsea worked as a communications manager in the nonprofit sector.