Nearly half young Americans struggled with mental health in mid-2021

About half of young adults in the US had mental health symptoms during the pandemic, and more than a third of those were unable to access mental health therapy, a new UC San Francisco study has found. 

The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, used Household Pulse Survey (HPS) data from the US Census Bureau to determine the prevalence of anxiety and/or depression symptoms in a sample of 2,809 adults aged 18-25. The data, collected between June and early July 2021, also included rates of mental health service utilisation and unmet needs for mental health therapy.

In total, 48% of young adults reported mental health symptoms and, among those with symptoms, 39% used prescription medications and/or received counselling, while 36% reported unmet counselling needs. Female, Hispanic and uninsured young adults had the greatest unmet needs, though these trends were not statistically significant.

boy wearing white shirt and black shorts carrying backpack standing on black concrete road between vehicles and trees during daytime

‘Given that only about one third of those with symptoms received care, we might have expected to see closer to two-thirds reporting unmet need,’ said Sally Adams, specialist in UCSF’s Division of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine. ‘It could be that the people with symptoms who didn’t report unmet need either didn’t think their symptoms were serious enough for treatment or feared the stigma of needing mental health services.’

While the rates of mental health symptoms in the study are high, they are a decline from a CDC study that found 63% of young adults were experiencing depression or anxiety a year earlier in June 2020.  

Nonetheless, the consistent findings of significant mental health struggles among young adults highlight the importance of addressing barriers to care for this group, such as cost, stigma and confidentiality concerns, the authors wrote. 

There is also a need to improve the size, distribution, and capacity of the mental health workforce, noted Charles Irwin Jr, UCSF professor of paediatrics.

‘Despite the development of virtual platforms for providing mental health services, the current need for services far exceeds the capacity to provide them,’ he said

Identification and treatment of mental health symptoms are crucial for promoting young adults’ present and future well-being across the life course, wrote the authors. 

Photo by Jesús Rodríguez


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