With the COVID-19 vaccine rollout well underway across the country, it is tempting to deem the pandemic over. But after bearing so many of the losses of the past year — as essential workers, as college students, and as the family and friends of COVID-19 victims — young Americans are facing a mental health crisis. Our generation is in desperate need of support.
We are student leaders of the Harvard Public Opinion Project, a polling outlet within the Kennedy School that regularly surveys young Americans nationally in a political context. For our spring survey, we asked respondents about their mental health, since we were concerned that symptoms of depression and anxiety were on the rise among our peers.
What we heard back was staggering — and we’re sounding the alarm.
Over half — 51 percent — of respondents aged 18-29 had felt down, depressed, or hopeless at least several days out of the previous two weeks; 28 percent had thoughts of self-harm or suicide over the two-week period, with 1 out of 20 respondents experiencing those thoughts every day. In comparison, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, in 2019, only 21 percent of people in the same demographic had symptoms of depression.
The CDC’s figure in itself is alarming. A 150 percent increase is a crisis. There are over 45 million young people in the United States, and millions, if not tens of millions, are now experiencing unparalleled psychological distress.
These numbers hold across gender, racial, and class lines. However, we found significant racial disparities among respondents experiencing symptoms of severe depression. A quarter of percent of white respondents had thoughts of self-harm or suicide, compared to 35 percent of Black respondents and 31 percent of Hispanic respondents. White respondents without a college experience (31 percent), rural Americans (34 percent), and young Americans not registered to vote (38 percent) were also more likely to experience symptoms of severe depression or have thoughts of self-harm.
The coronavirus — and concerns exacerbated by the pandemic — have significantly impacted our respondents’ mental health: 34 percent said they were negatively impacted by the pandemic, 29 percent by personal relationships and by self-image, 28 percent by social isolation, a quarter by economic concerns, and 22 percent by health concerns.
A turbulent election cycle and the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol likewise took a toll on our respondents: 21 percent indicated that politics had negatively affected their mental health in the past two weeks. Nevertheless, 56 percent responded they were hopeful about the future of America, and two-thirds believe that President Biden will make their life better.
Young people have put their faith in Biden. Now our generation needs his support. We are heartened that the latest coronavirus relief package allocated about $2.5 billion to fund efforts for prevention and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders. The administration should continue to fund and advocate for accessible mental health care, and state-level health services should follow suit in making mental health a budgetary and legislative priority.
Schools and employers should also take action and support their students and staff. A majority of our respondents said their mental health was negatively impacted by school- or work-related issues. The response of their institutions has been insufficient. Colleges have instituted “wellness days” while failing to provide adequate mental health services for their students, and employers have maintained exacting standards of performance while ignoring burnout among their staff.
High schools, colleges, and workplaces should invest in mental health care and make sure these resources are available regardless of the ability to pay. These institutions also must invest in clinicians of color to decrease the existing disparities in mental health among Black and Hispanic youth. This issue has become particularly critical following the disturbing rise in hate crimes and police brutality over the past year.
Finally, there needs to be open conversation about mental health, and families, parents, and friends need to be aware of troubling symptoms in their loved ones. Our data make it clear that those struggling are far from alone. By encouraging honest conversations about mental well-being, the stigma around mental health issues can be lessened and young people will be encouraged to seek help.
This crisis presents an opportunity for the Biden administration, colleges, workplaces, families, and friends to better the lives of young people. This issue cannot be pushed to the side, and our generation cannot be left to fend for itself. The consequences will be devastating.
Ellen M. Burstein and Alan Zhang are students at Harvard College and helped design the Spring 2021 Youth Poll by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School.