The pandemic struck students at a particularly vulnerable age. According to Jeffrey Arnett, a psychologist at Clark University, ages 18-25 comprise "emerging adulthood," a period of time falling neatly between adolescence and young adulthood.
In an article for "American Psychologist," he explains that this is "a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life's possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course." In other words, it's when young people lay the foundation for an adult life -- both professionally and personally.
And while this would ordinarily be a period of near limitless possibility, the pandemic has greatly reduced the opportunities available to recent high school and college graduates. According to Pew Research Center, in May, about a quarter of Americans aged 16-24 were unemployed (up from 8% in February of this year) -- and some have had to settle for significantly lower paying jobs in order to make a dent in their bills.
There is also growing concern that these financial hurdles can have long-term negative effects on earning potential. Millennials are evidence of that. After graduating into the Great Recession more than a decade ago, employment opportunities were sparse. And while most millennials have since found work, their earnings have not grown at a rate commensurate with their experience, according to a 2019 research paper from economist Kevin Rinz.
The risk is not just limited to economics. According to a National Center for Health Statistics survey, which relies on the same mental health scale used by medical professionals, between January and June 2019, 10% of 18-34-year-olds showed clinically significant symptoms of an anxiety disorder, 5.8% experienced a major depressive disorder and 12.2% reported anxiety and/or depression.
Karla Gutierrez, who recently completed her junior year at California State University Long Beach, tells CNN that even before Covid-19, she suffered from bouts of anxiety and depression. From a working-class family in Bakersfield, California, she struggled to balance her desire to pursue her college education with her need to earn money and help support her family.
"I just kept thinking, my mom, a janitor at a local clinic, is so stressed. What can I do to make her happy? Will earning good grades be enough, or do I need to get a full-time job and bring in extra cash? There was just no easy answer," Gutierrez says.
Since the pandemic, the percentage of Americans, especially younger ones, dealing with mental health issues has increased at an alarming rate. Over a six-day period in early June, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, 41% of 18-34-year-olds showed clinically significant symptoms of an anxiety disorder, 35.1% experienced a major depressive disorder and 47.5% reported anxiety and/or depression.
Justice Georgie, a freshman at Baltimore City Community College, has experienced this anxiety first-hand. When the pandemic struck, he was forced to move out of his cozy dorm room back to his mother's one-bedroom apartment. "The transition was not the smoothest," he admits, "and with my mother, a hairdresser, temporarily out of work -- it was a stressful beginning to a new chapter of my life."
Compounding the matter was the death of George Floyd. As a 19-year-old Black man, Georgie is no stranger to the threat posed by systemic racism, but now he is confronting images of it daily -- and, he says, the brutality of it all feels, at times, overwhelming.
Nancy Darling, an Oberlin psychology professor, explains that while there are many factors contributing to these levels of anxiety, one of them is likely a desire to have more control of a chaotic world -- one, in young peoples' case, that has been punctuated by mass shootings and increasingly divisive politics.
Now, Covid-19 and the country's reckoning with police brutality have taken away whatever semblance of control students like Georgie thought they had, Darling says.