A COVID Conundrum: Failure to Launch

Young woman with dark hair pulling mask below her mouth
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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 found themselves. They entered an externally imposed holding pattern, waiting to start their lives, but unable to do so for reasons beyond their control.

Now, two years later, many of them are exactly where they were then – and they’ve been joined by the class of 2021, who, upon graduation last year, faced unemployment rates at close to twice the rate of college graduates before COVID-19.

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 and understood that it would likely 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.

COVID-19 threw a huge monkey wrench into their plans.

Data from Statista show the real numbers about the employment status of recent college graduates.

College Graduates and Employment: 2019-2021

  • In June, 2019, 3.8% of recent college graduates were unemployed. That’s pre-pandemic.
  • In June, 2020, 13.3% of recent college graduates were unemployed. That’s mid-pandemic.
  • In June, 2021, 6.1% of recent college graduates were unemployed. That’s after vaccines became available.

Finally, late last year, employment numbers began to rebound, and the current unemployment rate among recent college graduates is almost back to pre-pandemic levels.

Major Disruption to Life Plans

The employment outlook has improved, but that doesn’t change the fact that for the class of 2020 and 2021, nothing happened the way they planned. The class of 2020 graduated at the beginning of the pandemic, while the nation wrestled with multiple levels of uncertainty, stress, and anxiety. We didn’t know nearly as much about COVID-19 then as we do now. People were still disinfecting their groceries, as directed by a well-meaning – but off-base – physician who posted a YouTube video that got millions of views.

The class of 2021 graduated well into the pandemic, when we knew much more about transmissibility, the course of the illness, and how to best implement mitigation measures – but before the arrival of the vaccines. And at the end of their graduation summer, as fall and their real life after college was about to begin, the omicron virus threw another monkey wrench into their plans.

What all this means is that many recent college graduates – despite the employment rebound, despite the presence of vaccines, and despite the fact that we’re at our new normal, more or less – are still living at home. This trend began well before the pandemic, as documented by the Pew Research Center in 2016. In fact, this generation of young adults have a name: the boomerang generation – because like a boomerang, they’re coming back to where they started.

But this new group of young adults and recent college grads have additional challenges to face. The stress and uncertainty of the pandemic caused an increase in the prevalence of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and alcohol/substance use. Rates of these issues increased for almost all demographic groups between 2020 and 2022, but the numbers are particularly high for this generation young adults – college graduate or not.

COVID-19: 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 the mental health of U.S. citizens.

In August of 2020, roughly six 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 young adults.

Here’s what they found:

  • 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 to 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. We’ll take a look at the drug use and addiction statistics now, in order to find out if their predictions were accurate.

COVID-19: Impact on Young Adult 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), do, in fact, confirm those predictions:

  • 13% of people of age 18-64 surveyed said they’d initiated substance use during the pandemic
  • 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.

In addition, data published in the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (2021 NSDUH), shows that alongside the increase in alcohol consumption and substance among young adults, rates of clinically diagnosed substance use disorder (SUD) and alcohol use disorder (AUD) also increased.

Here’s that data:

  • Substance use disorder prevalence, ages 18-25:
    • 2019: 15.4%
      • College graduates: 13.9%
    • 2020: 24.4%
      • College graduates: 29.5%
    • Alcohol Use Disorder Prevalence, ages 18-25:
      • 2019: 9.3%
        • College graduates: 11.4%
      • 2020: 15.6%
        • College graduates: 23%

Those statistics also confirm expert predictions about the effect of the pandemic on alcohol and substance use among young adults. From 2019 to 2020, SUD increased almost ten percentage points for all people ages 18-25, and more than doubled for college graduates in that age group. And from 2019-2020, AUD increased by 67 percent for people ages 18-25, and – like SUD – more than doubled for college graduates in that age group.

The Cumulative Effect of COVID on Recent College Graduates

Evidence shows that shelter-in-place orders, depression, anxiety, income instability, and unemployment all increased risk of developing alcohol and substance use disorders. And now, two years later, college-age students who live at home with their parents experience four of these five of these risk factors at the same time. In addition, close proximity to parents and siblings can increase levels of stress and anxiety – we don’t need statistics for that, since it’s a common human phenomenon – 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 for many college graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021.

What Parents, Friends, and Loved Ones Can Do

If you’re the parent of one of these recent college grads who are still, even now, as we near the end of the pandemic, stuck in this 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 or addiction 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, friend, or loved one 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, get their affairs in order, and get them on the road to living a fulfilling, independent, and productive life – because with very few exceptions, that’s exactly what they need.

The materials provided on the Pinnacle Blog are for information and educational purposes only. No behavioral health or any other professional services are provided through the Blog and the information obtained through the Blog is not a substitute for consultation with a qualified health professional. If you are in need of medical or behavioral health treatment, please contact a qualified health professional directly, and if you are in need of emergency help, please go to your nearest emergency room or dial 911.