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Post-COVID, Young Adults Struggle More with Their Mental Health Than Those Over 40

18–39 year olds experience lower levels of wellbeing, with economic vulnerability a likely contributor

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This is a sobering realization to see that some of those same reported stresses of being a young person in the United States extend well into early adulthood. ”

Sarah Collier Villaume
NU postdoctoral fellow


Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic almost four years ago, people across the U.S. have reported increased rates of depression and anxiety.

While the mental health crisis touched a broad spectrum of Americans, a study published in JAMA Network Open finds that young adults aged 18 to 39 did not recover along with the rest of the adult population as the country emerged from the worst of the pandemic.

The study—led by Northwestern postdoctoral fellow Sarah Collier Villaume, a former IPR graduate research assistant, with IPR developmental psychobiologist Emma Adam—finds persistently high levels of anxiety and depression among younger adults aged 18–39, when compared to those in middle adulthood, aged 40–59.

“For years, there has been a pressing conversation about mental health concerns among adolescents,” Collier Villaume said. “This is a sobering realization to see that some of those same reported stresses of being a young person in the United States extend well into early adulthood.”

Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey conducted over 27 months between 2020 and 2022, the researchers analyzed surveys from more than three million 18–59 year olds, which asked about their pandemic experiences.

Such datasets “offer an unprecedented opportunity to examine trends in well-being through multiple years of a global pandemic,” Collier Villaume said.

The highest levels of pandemic-era anxiety and depression were observed in 2020 for all age groups and began to decline in early 2021, coinciding with the availability of the COVID-19 vaccination. When broken down by age group, the researchers identified a widening gap in anxiety and depression between the young adults and those in middle adulthood. They show that younger adults’ levels of self-reported anxiety and depression were higher than those of older adults after surges in COVID-19 case counts, yet they did not decrease as much as those of older adults once a COVID vaccine became available.

In searching for reasons why, the researchers pointed to lower incomes and rates of home ownership as key differences between young and middle-aged adults. Younger adults typically earned less, with 40% earning less than $100,000 per year, and they were also more likely to be living with others, compared with older adults who tended to have their own homes.

“This is a wake-up call for policymakers and for everyone who cares about the wellbeing of young people in the U.S.,” Collier Villaume said. “Individuals whose annual household income is less than $100,000 are potentially more vulnerable to a novel stressor like the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to those who have more economic stability."

Collier Villaume urged policymakers to think about Americans and how they can shore up their stability during a pandemic, climate crises, or other highly stressful life events.

Read the full article here.

Sarah Collier Villaume (PhD 2022) is a postdoctoral fellow in Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy E4 Center and a former IPR graduate research assistant. Emma Adam is the Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and an IPR fellow.

Published: December 13, 2023.