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WKSU, our public radio partners in Ohio and across the region and NPR are all continuing to work on stories on the latest developments with the coronavirus and COVID-19 so that we can keep you informed.

The Psychological Effects of the Pandemic Have Hit Young People Especially Hard

melody sabo .jpg
Jeff St. Clair
/
WKSU
Melody Sabo, 26, is one of many young adults feeling the mental health effects of pandemic imposed isolation.

COVID-19, violent demonstrations, natural disasters, a bitter election—there’s been a lot to process over the past eight months.

While health officials focus on the physical impact of the coronavirus, it’s
easy to overlook the mental and emotional strain the pandemic has put on
everyone.

And while the health effects may be worse for older adults, the psychological impact of the pandemic has hit young people especially hard.

A rough year

Sarah Suntheimer is a bright and outgoing junior at Kent State University, but she’s had a rough year.

“So basically my life went from normal college student things," she said. "And then everything was just there.”

sarah suntheimer.jpg
Jeff St. Clair
Sarah Suntheimer is a math and political science major at Kent State University. Like many college age adults, she's had to reassess her goals and prepare for a very uncertain post-coronavirus future.

She was in Italy this spring taking part in Kent State’s study abroad program. While there, she met someone, and they decided to live together.

Then, the coronavirus struck. Whisked home to quarantine, her life upended, she sank into depression.

“I no longer had classes to keep me occupied. I’m missing my partner horribly in Italy, and there’s no hope of getting back soon,” Suntheimer said.

Now, the Kent State junior faces virtual classes and what she describes as an excessive workload.

“I’m looking at what my right now looks like, and the right now of my fellow college students, and it’s insane,” she said.

Suntheimer, like many of her peers, is struggling to prepare for a future in flux.

“As a person who’s going to graduate in two years, I see absolutely no certainty in what the world will look—like in two years,” Suntheimer said.

Taking a toll

That uncertainty, according to Kent State psychology researcher Joel Hughes, is taking a psychological toll on young people.
“College students were particularly vulnerable because just about every college and university in the country sent everyone home," he said. "So imagine losing your job, your housing, your classes, your peer group—you lost everything overnight.”

joel hughes.jpg
Jeff St. Clair
Psychology researcher Joel Hughes, Ph.D., is studying the mental health effects the pandemic is having on college age adults.

Hughes says feelings of anxiety and depression among all adults in the U.S. have tripled since the start of the pandemic, but for people in their 20s, that figure is six times higher than previous levels.

And for younger people, Hughes says feelings of hopelessness have deepened.

"For people between the ages of 18 and 24, 25 percent had seriously contemplated suicide in the previous month.”

The isolation of the pandemic

It’s easy to think of your 20's as a carefree time without struggles, but for Melody Sabo, that hasn't quite been the case.

She’s 26 and has a good job but is finding that the isolation of the pandemic is wearing on her.

“I live by myself, so I don’t interact with anyone. Since we’re working at home, I don’t see anyone during work hours." Sabo said. "In the evenings, I don’t see anyone either.”

She also says dating during a pandemic is especially fraught.

“Even if we met in person, where, and how? And if I wear a mask and he doesn’t, are we going to hate each other as soon as we meet?” she said.

By July Sabo had realized the pandemic was seriously affecting her mental health.

“I just noticed changes in my own behavior, like sleeping more, not bothering to get ready, or even clean,” the 26-year-old said.

She’s recognized her needs to socialize for survival.

“I don’t think it’s safe for me to stay by myself and not interact for anyone for the next year or however long this is going to go on," she said.

Weighing the risks

Ashley Farrish is a therapist in Akron who’s been seeing a lot of younger patients lately.

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Ashley Farrish
Ashley Farrish is a therapist and licensed social worker practicing in Akron. She's been seeing a lot of young patients lately. She encourages them to weigh the mental and physical risks of isolating during the pandemic.

“Human beings are pack animals. Human beings are meant to exist in communities,” Farrish said.

She says young people have a special challenge right now: weighing the physical risks of getting out with the mental health risks of staying home.

“We certainly don’t want to see people get so depressed that safety is an issue, you’re isolating so much and feeling suicidal, but we also don’t want you at a party of thirty people,” she said.

We live at a time when even the rules for healthy behavior are contradictory. This is one more reason, she says, for the feelings of disillusionment she’s seeing in young people.

“There’s so much that has happened in the last 20 years that would lead a young person feeling like, ‘what can I put my faith in? And what does self-actualization truly mean for me?’” Farrish said.

No way back

It’s a question Kent State student Sarah Suntheimer has been pondering.

“I think the expectation of people who are just graduating now and people who will graduate from college in the next four or five years—their job is to rebuild these systems that fell apart and to rethink them and how they make sense now,” Suntheimer said.

She believes that there will be no getting back to the way things were before the pandemic.