Psychology acknowledges a unique stage of development between adolescence and adulthood, lasting from around ages 18-25. This age bracket comprises primarily college students and those in ongoing training or trade schools.
The psychological term to define this in-between stage young people go through is emerging adulthood.
A part of the human lifecycle categorized by teetering psychological changes, emerging adulthood has been proposed to represent a new demographic in developed countries.
There is a term raving all over social media – “adulting” – that refers to young adults struggling to perform the duties of fully developed adults. It can make us laugh to see a post about getting an oil change or cooking a meal in lieu of sleeping all day and buying weed. But there is good reason why the term “adulting” and what it represents resonates with so many.
- What is Emerging Adulthood?
- What Distinguishes Emerging Adulthood From Other Life Stages? (5 Features)
- Common Mental Health Disorders in Young Adults
- Emerging Adulthood Psychiatry Requires a Unique Approach
What Is Emerging Adulthood?
Gone are the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents where people married in their late teens, had several children and were homemakers. Now, young people don’t have to enter the workforce after – or instead of – high school and don’t need to marry young. We have more choices and opportunities. In fact, most Americans choose to go to college.
With these new-generation opportunities come some unique pressures and psychological challenges for college students.
Because of this transitional and complex stage of development, mental health issues often arise or reveal themselves during this time. More and more, we are seeing mental health in college students as an important and valid issue.
Some of these mental health issues affecting college students are:
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Mood disorders
- Eating disorders
Understanding Emerging Adulthood
Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD, is a college professor of psychology at Clark University. Dr. Arnett coined the term “emerging adulthood” with his book Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road From the Late Teens Through the Twenties.
Starting in 1995, Arnett studied those in the age bracket of 18-29, interviewing them for five years in different cities around the nation. Examining, working and researching further, Arnett discovered a new stage of development.
Arnett’s empirical research led to our understanding of emerging adulthood and the accompanying common mental health disorders in young adults.
What Distinguishes Emerging Adulthood From Other Life Stages? (5 Features)
Preparing for a career, choosing a profession and life path, and learning the life skills and habits to live independently are all a part of becoming a successful adult.
When does adolescence end and adulthood begin? When does the child become a man or a woman?
The transition from dependency to responsibility involves 5 primary features.
1. Identity Exploration
Fifty years ago the roles of society provided clear expectations, stability and a well-defined structure for their adult lives. Today, approximately 70 percent of Americans pursue education beyond the twelfth grade.
Without arranged marriages or even parental permission, U.S. citizens choose their love life for themselves. Choices in work and paradigms are what exercise our freedoms and voting rights.
Achieving one’s identity often involves risky and explorative behavior. In college, this means pursuing one’s own love interests and romantic escapades, dabbling with different course studies and choosing after-class activities that may or may not be entirely legal or parent-approved.
To find their own unique identity, young people must break the shell of their childhood and test their parents’ values. Exploring their own desires to travel, be hedonistic, focus on a career and plot out a future of their own making, students engage in facets of identity exploration.
The age of instability is characterized with frequent moves and residential changes. Changes in educational courses and choice of colleges, such as moving from community college to university, are a part of emerging adulthood, as are changes in part-time jobs or career goals.
The natural explorations and behaviors of the 18-year-old through the 25-year-old also create instability.
Thrill-seeking behavior, new sexual experiences and learning how to let go of childish things while taking on responsibility for one’s self can also cause some cognitive dissonance or instability during this stage.
3. Feeling In-Between
The majority of people in their late teens and early twenties say they feel in-between childhood and adulthood.
Accepting responsibility for one’s self and working towards achieving financial independence are real concepts a young person faces daily.
Making decisions for one’s self and becoming self-sufficient comprise living up to the roles and responsibilities of adulthood. Most emerging adults have the feeling of not being a teenager or adolescent but not fully an adult yet either.
Ah, the freedom of being young and flying from the nest. The age of self-focus is marked by discovering who we are and what our worldviews will be.
We are in a period when Americans have married the latest in our history, until almost age 30. Until we settle down with a partner and want to have kids, we take time to figure out who we are. We decide where we want to live and who we want to love.
It takes self-focus and self-examination to make a choice on what type of love partner we want and what we want to do with our lives.
5. Endless Possibility
As a young person, possibilities seem infinite and endless. Young adults often feel invincible. They know they’ll live better lives than their parents, and optimism reigns.
College-aged men and women feel strength in their friendships and the possibilities the world offers them. They can remake themselves and be who they want to be.
Common Mental Health Disorders in Young Adults
Despite what a driver’s license might say, living as an adult requires more than being eighteen. This can be especially challenging for those with mental health disorders.
Many mental health disorders arise during emerging adulthood. From drug addiction to depression, those in late adolescence and early adulthood are the largest demographic to endure such struggles.
Think about the epidemic of mental health issues high school and college kids face today. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 75 percent of people who develop mental health disorders do so in late adolescence or early adulthood.
The brain is still growing and developing into the twenties and longer for males than females. With all that is going on in a young person’s cognitive development, coupled with the challenges of emerging adulthood, it is no wonder why mental illness presents at this stage.
There are several conditions that are considered common mental health disorders in young adults.
Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is recognized as a mental health disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5).
The primary symptoms in ADHD revolve around:
Although the symptoms of ADHD begin in childhood, it is not just a childhood disorder. ADHD can continue through the teen years and into adulthood. Especially poignant for college students, studying and paying attention in class can be very difficult.
At a time when the emerging adult is developing an identity, the impulse control issues of ADHD make life challenging inside and outside of class. Even skills such as budgeting, doing laundry and time management are put to a test too difficult to overcome without help.
College life is glorified with images of party animals, free flowing alcohol and sex. However, the average college freshman doesn’t realize that binge drinking can quickly lead to alcoholism.
Alcohol use disorder is a serious medical condition and often arises during university life. The freedom of living out of a parent’s house or simply going to parties and being around peers who drink regularly can influence a person to start consuming alcohol too often or go on binges.
Sometimes triggered by the changing dynamics of love interests and the related trauma of rejection and breakups, students can be vulnerable to alcoholism. Other times simply the facets of instability and identity exploration make emerging adults vulnerable to alcohol abuse.
Sexual assault and violent crimes are closely tied to alcohol abuse on college campuses.
Some anxiety is a normal response to the events of life. Waiting in line at the cafeteria, anticipating a test grade, being separated from those you love, and being anxious to fit in socially while toeing the line for your own beliefs are all valid reasons to experience anxiety.
However, too much and persistent anxiety can be an overwhelming mental struggle and become a disorder.
Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health problems on college campuses.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and, additionally, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, college student mental health statistics regarding anxiety are as follows:
- 40 million adults suffer from anxiety, and 75 percent of them experience their first episode by the age of 22
- 85% of college students report feeling overwhelmed by everything they have to do at some point during the year
- 41% listed anxiety as the top presenting concern among college students
- One in four have a diagnosable illness, but 40 percent of those do not seek help
Social media impacts young adults, and a desire to appear effortlessly perfect arises. Constant comparisons whittle self-esteem.
In a non-judgmental way, some parents report their children stuck in a failure-to-launch rut. These parents feel their young adults struggle to find their way to complete adulthood and live at home, dependent, into their thirties. Young adults who feel they struggle with responsibility commonly deal with depression.
At a time where some feel unbridled potential and the excitement of forming lifelong friendships, others struggle to stay afloat, drowning in seas of disorganized papers and overflowing to-do lists. The dark side of the on-top-of-the-world feeling is the feeling of being crushed by the weight of the world.
College depression is a widespread problem. The feelings of loneliness, being stressed out, isolation and being overwhelmed can lead to serious problems, if they persist.
Exploring and reshaping your identity can be confusing and disorienting.
Suicide rates continue to increase among college students and are the second leading cause of death on college campuses.
Many college students turn to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to alleviate their depression. Sadly, coping with mood disorders or depression by using substances only worsens the problem and potentially creates an addiction.
At a stage in development when young adults are particularly vulnerable, drugs are exchanged in dormitories and at parties. Stimulants as study aids, such as Adderall and cocaine, depressants as escapes, such as marijuana and heroin, and opioids as painkillers (physical or emotional) are the challenges students face.
Some more reasons young adults are chemically inclined:
- Freedom from parental rules
- The fun-seeking desires of emerging adulthood
- To cope with the stress of being pulled in so many directions
- Social pressure
We are a nation of drugged-out dorms. Coping with the responsibilities of growing up, the still-developing young person often chooses to rely on drugs and alcohol.
Unaware of the real potential for addiction and its consequences, students make choices they later may regret.
Sometimes, all a college-aged person needs are the right people to help them deal with their changing life experiences.
Emerging Adulthood Psychiatry Requires a Unique Approach
By the time a young person finishes high school, they are probably as tall as they will get. They have likely grown physically to their potential, yet mental growth and cognition is still developing.
The mental health conditions that sideline the emerging adult are treatable with medication, therapy or both. It is important to remember that conditions – like depression – are treatable, even though the dark days make it hard to believe that things can get better with help.
The proper treatment for an emerging adult is neither child or adolescent psychiatry nor adult psychiatry. Drs. Megwinoff, Glazer, and Bassett of Fifth Avenue Psychiatry understand the needs of this unique demographic, crafting and implementing treatment plans accordingly.
Not every psychiatrist has the training and experience to treat emerging adults. The doctors at Fifth Avenue Psychiatry do. There is hope. Mental health disorders are treatable.
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