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Young adults often have smaller social circles to lean on and may be spending much of their time alone during COVID-19 restrictions. Sorajack/Getty Images
  • Two new studies suggest young adults are experiencing the highest levels of loneliness and suicidal thoughts since pandemic safety restrictions began.
  • This age group often has the smallest social circle to lean on and may be spending much of their time alone.
  • It’s important to pay attention to warning signs that your loved one may be experiencing suicidal thoughts and know how to get help when necessary.

The COVID-19 pandemic (and subsequent restrictions) has been hard on everyone, but recent research suggests no age group has been hit harder than young adults.

Not only are 20-somethings experiencing the highest rates of loneliness right now, more 18- to 24-year-olds are also thinking about suicide.

These findings are obviously unnerving, especially for those who have loved ones who may be affected.

That’s why mental health experts say understanding what is going on, and how to help, is so important.

Tess Brigham, MFT, BCC, is a licensed psychotherapist and board certified coach who specializes in working with young adults.

She told Healthline that the pandemic has had a disproportionate mental health impact on young people for a few different reasons.

“Most young people aren’t married and don’t have children,” Brigham said. “And while they don’t have to wrestle with their kids to pay attention in Zoom school, many of them live alone and live far away from family.”

She said that while some of her clients have decided to move back in with their parents as they wait out the pandemic, not everyone has good relationships with their parents, leaving many to languish in apartments on their own.

“While older adults have their partners and children at home with them, many of my clients relied on their friendships at work as well as outside of work as their primary way to connect with others,” she said.

Brigham said with physical, or social, distancing and working from home, those same clients are now missing out on the day-to-day interactions they used to count on.

“In addition, many young people were just establishing their lives post-college,” Brigham said. “Many of them were trying to get their footing at work and build a community of friends when COVID hit.”

As a result, these young adults don’t have large groups of friends in their areas to make a “social bubble” with. Instead, they’re on their own, locked in their apartments, avoiding people.

All of which is a recipe for loneliness.

“On a larger level, there’s a fear they will never get an opportunity to make friends or meet a romantic partner if they can’t interact with new people,” Brigham said. “Many of them feel like they’ve had to put their lives on hold.”

She said these young adults recognize the importance of physical distancing and not traveling.

But that doesn’t make canceling big trips or holding off on developmental life goals any easier.

“Loneliness is the gap between relationships you want and those you have, which causes emotional pain,” said Danielle Ramo, PhD, a clinical psychologist and senior director of research at Hopelab.

She explained that loneliness is based on the perception a person holds about their social connections, whether they’re satisfying or fulfilling.

“This year, as many of our social connections have moved online and friends and families are not able to connect in the same ways they were prior to the COVID pandemic, young people may interpret this to mean their social connections are not meaningful enough,” Ramo said.

Instead of feeling like their friends will always be there for them, missing out on school and other key events may be causing some young people to question whether they have true, meaningful friendships.

She pointed to new data from an Active Minds Survey of 2,086 college students regarding the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health.

Eighty percent of the students surveyed reported experiencing loneliness and isolation, putting it among the top three most common problems they were dealing with (alongside stress/anxiety and disappointment/sadness).

“Loneliness is widespread and was a problem before the pandemic hit,” Ramo said. “Isolation is only exacerbating its effects.”

And when people are feeling isolated and lonely, Ramo said they’re also more likely to have heightened negative thoughts about themselves, others, and the world.

“In extreme cases, it can be hard to identify anything positive in one’s life, even when we do have a support system and a lot to be grateful for,” she said.

When that happens, Ramo said symptoms of shock, sadness, guilt, resentfulness, anxiety, and helplessness, and even physical symptoms, like nausea, fatigue, or having trouble sleeping, can become normal.

“While our reactions are individual, no one of us is alone in this,” Ramo said.

But just because it may be normal to experience these feelings in a time like this doesn’t make those feelings any less painful.

“There can be a pressure to feel like we have to bury feelings of overwhelm and loss right now to get through the day, but that is actually more likely to backfire than be helpful,” Ramo said.

By not acknowledging those feelings, young adults may begin to feel even more isolated and alone, and the evolution from that to suicidal ideation isn’t a big leap for some people.

Brigham said that young adults who have received a diagnosis of depression or other severe mental health issues in the past, especially if they were experiencing depression symptoms when COVID-19 hit, may be most vulnerable right now.

She added that those who have had a family member die by suicide are at a higher risk for suicidal thoughts as well.

That said, Brigham thinks it’s important for people to understand that a person doesn’t usually consider suicide when they’re at the deepest part of their depression.

“When you’re depressed, you have no energy,” Brigham said. “But once the suicidal person makes the decision to [attempt] suicide, there will be a spike in their mood. They’re happy again because they made this decision and they know the pain they’ve been feeling is going to end soon.”

She said it’s important to pay attention to your loved one’s behavior. Are they giving their belongings away or talking about getting things in order? Have you noticed them seeming to stockpile medications or trying to obtain a weapon?

All of these can be critical signs that a person needs immediate help.

The National Institute of Mental Health has a comprehensive list [of signs and symptoms],” Ramo said, sharing that some notable signs a person is considering suicide include:

  • talking about wanting to die or wanting to kill themselves
  • talking about feeling empty, hopeless, or having no reason to live
  • feeling unbearable pain (emotional pain or physical pain)
  • using substances, like alcohol, more often
  • withdrawing from friends and family

“For those who are experiencing profound loss associated with changes from COVID-19, counseling and therapy may be necessary,” Ramo said.

“And if someone is in crisis, they should reach out via Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255),” she said.

If you’re worried about a loved one, Brigham encourages you to talk to them and share your concerns.

“Try and remain calm, and keep your emotions in check. They need to see you calm and in control,” Brigham said.

“Be thoughtful and direct, and ask if they’re thinking about harming themselves. Don’t beat around the bush. Be willing to ask these hard questions. It won’t put the idea in their minds,” she said.

If your loved one’s answer is yes, she said to take the conversation a step further by asking whether they have a plan. Have they decided how they would hurt themselves?

Ask what, if anything, they’ve been doing for their mental health. If they’re open to it, talk about ways they can manage their depression and loneliness.

“If you’re worried, even in the slightest, ask your loved one to make a contract with you that they won’t hurt themselves before calling you first or the suicide hotline,” Brigham said, adding that you shouldn’t keep this information to yourself.

“Get in touch with this person’s closest relatives or friends. It might upset your loved one, but that’s better than the alternative,” she said.

Brigham further suggested encouraging your loved one to seek support and helping them find a therapist in their area. Your loved one may even benefit from an inpatient program, if one is available.

“If you think your loved one took something or is in immediate danger, call 911 or the suicide hotline and let them know what’s going on,” Brigham said. “You can ask for a wellness check on a loved one even if they’re in another state.”

If you have any concerns at all for yourself or a loved one, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) is a great resource for information and tools to help.

“Suicide hotlines aren’t just for people who are planning to harm themselves,” Brigham said. “You can call one to simply talk to the other person about how you’re feeling and get some tools to better manage your feelings of isolation. Sometimes you simply just need to talk to someone and tell them how you feel.”

She went on to say that most therapists are offering telehealth visits now, which means anyone can find a therapist to meet with on a regular basis from the comfort of their own home.

“Even if you don’t have a lot of money, there are therapists who do sliding scales or work in community mental health agencies,” Brigham said. “If you live in a rural town, go to the nearest big city. There are always therapists (some in training getting their hours for licensure) who will charge you based on your income.”

While it’s not the same, Brigham also suggested finding ways to create connections online.

“There are tons of virtual meet-ups and events happening, and people are getting creative with breakout rooms, having two or three people to connect at once in separate Zoom rooms,” she said.

Brigham added that checking out what your employer will cover is also a good idea.

“Lots of companies have benefits you might not know about. Talk to HR or whomever handles your benefits and find out what’s available to you,” she said.

Surviving 2020 means not only protecting our physical health but also our mental health. Accomplishing both means getting enough sleep, eating well, and abstaining from too much alcohol, Brigham said.

She also suggested staying off your phone and social media whenever possible.

“These are the most important things you can do on a daily basis,” she explained.

Beyond that, Brigham wants to remind young people that it’s OK, and even normal, to feel lonely and isolated right now.

“Find someone to talk to about it,” she said, adding that everyone is struggling and no one expects you to be upbeat all the time.

“While no one wants to be ‘Debbie Downer’ in your group of friends, talk about what this experience has been like and how you’re feeling. Just talking about your feelings can be powerful,” Brigham said.

For those who are now working from home, Brigham suggested creating some boundaries there: “Just because you can work all the time doesn’t mean you should work all the time.”

Instead, she said everyone should set a quitting time for each day and stick to it. Leave your evening hours to focus on your mental health: read, watch TV, take walks, or start a new hobby.

Most importantly, Brigham encourages people to stay connected with loved ones through whatever means available. Don’t hesitate or overthink it. Just pick up the phone and call.

“Focus on doing your best to live your life right now, and don’t put off certain things until the pandemic is over. Your life is happening now,” Brigham said. “Just be safe and don’t take unnecessary risks.”

This is a great time to reflect and work on things you haven’t been able to work on when life was so busy, Brigham explained.

“Remember, this will end and life will slowly get back to normal. But what do you want to take with you as we start to socialize again? Meaning, what have you learned about yourself since you’ve been home, and how can you be a better version of yourself in this new post-pandemic world?” she said.