Scott was a thrity-two-year-old male living with his single-parent mother. He was unemployed, had an erratic sleep schedule, exhibited poor hygiene, and was fearful of being rejected if he applied for a job. He resisted antidepressants but did participate in a sleep study to help regulate his sleep. Incidentally, lack of or erratic sleep is often a contributor to symptoms of depression or anxiety. One day his mother introduced him to a friend who offered him a job working for the city. He got up the next day, started working, liked the job and coworkers and his life changed. Getting a job he liked and having friends at work was a boost to his self-esteem and provided a jump start toward responsible independence.
Parents wonder if their son or daughter is suffering from depression or from a failure to launch. The simple answer to this either/or question is “yes.” It clearly can and often is both. In either case, young adults see their peers settling into a job, marriage, independence and feel like failures. This can lead to sadness and anger at their failure in life There is some evidence that depression is anger turned inward. However, they can turn this anger outward toward parents or others. Parents may be attacked and efforts to help rebuffed due to their sense of failure and inadequacy. I’ve seen some very talented and high achieving high school students and even college grads get off track, lose their confidence and struggle to make gains in their quest for independence and slide into a depressive funk.
Which Came First?
More than the either/or question above, one can ask – which came first? For those with no history of depression, failing to make progress on young adult developmental tasks can lead to depression. Situational depression, as this is often referred to, is nevertheless depression and the symptoms are real. Sometimes, as described above, a significant change in circumstances – a new girlfriend, getting a job, getting into a school program, etc. – can often ameliorate these symptoms. Most young adults who are stuck are not just lazy or entitled but often have trouble getting started in a direction. However, these young people may need the help of a therapist, mentor or coach to help them regain their confidence. Establishing an identity, attaining independence, and building intimate relationships are tough tasks of this life stage. Getting small but early wins can help create some momentum toward the necessary launch process.
If there is a history of depression, failing to move toward responsible independence will exacerbate this underlying mental health problem. In the past these mental health issues may have been intermittent and treated or not, now the young adult can ascribe them to being developmentally stuck – no job, no money, no friends, and dependent on parents. Even in this case the response must be a both/and. It’s important to address the challenge of historical and current contributions to depression. If there was a treatment, medication or therapy, that was helpful in the past, it’s important to encourage young adults to avail themselves of this. Medication alone is not likely to address the developmental delay that is occurring. This is best done through a therapeutic relationship and process where there is a recognition of the life stage challenges the young adult needs to face.
Mental Health Problems have increased for Young Adults During the Pandemic.
COVID-19 has increased the rate of depression, anxiety and loneliness among young adults ages 18-24. Symptoms of depression and anxiety increased three to four times from 2019 to 2020 according to the Centers for Disease Control. This same study, conducted in 2020, found 63% of young adults between the ages of 18-24 reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. Loneliness was reported by 61% and suicide was the highest among this same age group. I’m reporting these findings not to alarm parents but to support the need to take a kinder more compassionate approach to the launch process until our young people can get back in play. 2020 into 2021 has been a rough period for both parents and young adults.
Here are some common signs of depression that I have observed with young adults:
- Sleep disturbance- too much, too little or erratic.
- Eating more or less and gaining or losing weight.
- Irritability and reactivity to parents’ enquiries, expressions of concerns or requests for help.
- Withdrawal or isolation- spending a lot of time in their room, often playing videogames.
- Expressions of despair and hopelessness.
- A reluctance to initiate any activity such as looking for work, applying to school programs, connecting to friends.
- Lack of any interests or finding any pleasure in life.
- Feelings and expressions of failure.
- Increased use of alcohol or pot. Alcohol as a depressant will clearly make things worse.
- Thoughts that one would be better off dead or hurting oneself.
What’s a Parent to Do?
- Take signs of depression seriously. This is especially true if there are expressions of suicide or self-harm or actions that might be indicative of this- taking unprescribed pills, obtaining gun, etc. In such cases, call the suicide hotline (800-273-8255 ) or local Crisis Line for advice. Ask your young adult to click on one or more of the links below to learn more about depression.
- Encourage, persuade even insist that the young adult get professional help and offer to pay for this. Currently, such help is available virtually so that the young adult does not have to leave the room. Offer to go to the first appointment with the young adult to express your concerns but then leave the session and support continued, exclusive relationship with the therapist. Ask them to read this blog and connect to one or more of the resources below.
- Encourage, if not partner, with them to get regular exercise. Exercise is one of the best antidepressants. Start with walks if necessary but encourage recreational activities, joining a gym, etc.
- Ask them to join you in family activates- dinner, watch a movie, tackle a work project, go out to dinner, etc.
- Reinforce any qualities and values you appreciate in them, historic achievements that reflect skills they have, and any positive actions you see, and ask for their help with some talent they have. This may take some effort to find these positive qualities and accomplishments but focusing on their problems is not likely to be helpful.
Remember there are multiple reasons young adults are failing to launch, but clearly depression is one. It’s also important that we practice patience with our young adult son or daughter. We can’t apply our experience of young adulthood or how our parents launched us to today’s youth. Young adults are taking longer to attain responsible independence than past generations. They are exploring and experimenting in work settings, school or training programs and relationships. This is not all bad. I like to point out that the first age of marriage for young adult males these days is 29 and for females 27. This is a positive statistic showing that young people want to get established before they settle into a relationship. It’s also important to understand this is a phase or stage of development and how they are today will not be how they are in the future. “This too shall pass” is a good mantra for us parents.