A COVID Conundrum: Failure to Launch During the Coronavirus Pandemic

On January 1st, 2020, college seniors across the country looked forward to graduation and the next phase of their lives. Some planned to go to graduate school. Some had jobs lined up and were ready to start a new career. Others had a general plan to move to a new city, find a job, and begin their lives as fully functioning, gainfully employed adults.

Almost none of them planned to move back in with mom and dad and wait out the worst of a global pandemic, the likes of which no one has seen in over a hundred years.

Yet that’s exactly where many of the estimated 3,898,000 college graduates from the class of 2020 are right now. They exist in an externally imposed holding pattern. They’re waiting to launch their lives, but unable to do so for reasons beyond their control.

Before the pandemic, employment statistics showed as many as 53% of college graduates were underemployed. Many college seniors knew they were entering a challenging job market. They understood it might take them a year or more to secure a job in their chosen career. They knew they’d have to work their way up, and possibly take non-career track jobs while they searched for their first break.

Now all that has changed.

Data from Statista show the current situation on the ground:

  • In June, 2019, 3.8% of recent college graduates were unemployed.
  • In June, 2020, 13.3% of recent college graduates were unemployed.

Now that many of these recent college graduates are living at home, they’re facing additional challenges. The stress of the pandemic has resulted in an increase in the prevalence of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and alcohol/substance use.

The numbers are particularly high for young, college age adults.

COVID: Impact on Young Adult Mental Health

At the beginning of the pandemic, experts from virtually every healthcare related field predicted that the isolation associated with stay-at-home and social distancing regulations combined with the general uncertainty around everything COVID-related would have negative consequences on our mental health.

In August of this year, three and a half months into the pandemic, the non-profit organization CHEGG partnered with the Born This Way Foundation to conduct a survey of over a thousand high school and college age students to assess the impact of COVID on a specific demographic: college students.

Here’s what they found.

Mental Health, COVID-19, and College Students

  • 58% of college students said they were moderately, very, or extremely worried about their personal mental health.
  • 53% of college students reported increased stress as a result of the pandemic
  • 48% reported symptoms of anxiety
  • 33% reported symptoms of depression
  • 55% reported they’d offered support a friend with mental health problems
  • 49% said a friend with mental health problems had reached out to them for support
  • 23% reported they knew someone who’d engaged in suicidal ideation since the beginning of the pandemic
  • 5% reported they’d attempted suicide

In addition to predictions about the impact of the pandemic on mental health, experts also predicted an increase in rates of alcohol and substance use. Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Canadian Center on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) confirm these projections:

  • 13% of people of age 18-64 surveyed said they’d initiated substance use during the pandemic
  • 24.7% of people age 18-24 surveyed said they’d increased substance use to cope with pandemic-related emotions
  • 21% of Canadians age 18-34 reported an increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic
  • 10% of Canadians over age 54 reported an increase in alcohol consumption during the pandemic

It’s important to note that the largest increases in alcohol and substance use occurred among younger populations. In both the U.S. and Canada, rates of increase for younger people were ten percent greater than the increase for older people.

The Cumulative Effect of COVID on Recent College Graduates

Evidence shows that shelter-in-place orders, depression, anxiety, income instability, and unemployment all increase risk of developing alcohol and substance use disorders. Right now, college-age students who live at home with their parents experience all five of these risk factors at the same time. In addition, close proximity to parents and siblings increases levels of stress and anxiety, which makes an already difficult situation that much more challenging.

Here’s the conundrum they face:

  1. The coronavirus pandemic sent them home, where a range of factors – listed above – may have led to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and an increase in alcohol or substance use.
  2. Depression, anxiety, and alcohol or substance use – in combination with isolation, unemployment, and income instability – can lead to clinical depression, clinical anxiety, and alcohol or substance use disorder.
  3. Mental health and alcohol/substance use disorders can impair the ability of an individual to seek and find employment and housing.

The coronavirus pandemic put their life plans on hold. Then, the time spent at home during coronavirus made them incapable of putting those plans into action. In short, the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a failure to launch.

What Parents Can Do

If you’re the parent of one of these recent college grads who’s in the middle of this coronavirus conundrum, you can help them. Whether they’ve developed an alcohol or substance use disorder or a mental health condition, what you need to know is that treatment works. The best thing you can do for them – and for your peace of mind – is arrange an appointment with a mental health professional. A therapist or psychiatrist can assess and diagnose the presence of an alcohol, substance use, or mental health disorder. If your college-age child receives a diagnosis, they’ll also receive a recommendation for treatment.

Think of this as a positive step in the right direction.

The right treatment at the right time can help your young adult child restore and rebuild their self-esteem and self-efficacy. It can help them get and stay sober – if that’s what they need. It can help them learn to manage the symptoms of a mental health disorder – if that’s what they need. The right treatment can help them get past this difficult set of circumstances. It can help them get their affairs in order. And most importantly, it can get them on the road toward a fulfilling, independent, and productive life – because with very few exceptions, that’s exactly what they need.