The second year of the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the mental health of young adults

Nearly half of 18- to 25-year-olds had a mental illness or substance use disorder in 2021, according to the latest report from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

While the national rate of mental illness was 22.8% for adults overall in the second year of the pandemic, that rate has skyrocketed to 33% among young adults, according to a survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ‘Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

In the administration’s report released earlier this week, young adults also had the highest rates of “severe” mental illness: 11.4 percent in 2021 compared to 7.1 percent for adults ages 26 to 49, and the 2.5% of those aged 50 and over. But juxtaposing this, the young adult age group had the lowest rate of mental health care.

“Every year since 1971, this survey has given us a window into our nation’s mental health and substance use challenges, and 2021 has been no different. As the findings make clear, millions of Americans young and old have faced challenges of mental health and substance use – sometimes both at the same time, during the second year of the pandemic,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a statement.

Teens and adults alike blamed the COVID-19 pandemic for negatively impacting their mental health. Nearly half of adolescents who have had a major depressive episode and half of adults with severe mental illness said the pandemic had negatively impacted their mental health “somewhat or a lot.”

Mental illness affected about 28% of people aged 26-49 and just 15% of those aged 50 and over in 2021.

Among all adults, a total of 12.3 million reported having had serious suicidal thoughts in 2021, approximately 3.5 million reported having made a suicidal plan, and 1.7 million had attempted suicide. Hispanic and Latino adults were the most likely to report it.

Racial disparities were also evident in those receiving mental health services, as white and multiracial adults were more likely to receive treatment than black, Hispanic or Latino and Asian adults.

Moving on to teenagers, 20% experienced a major depressive episode in 2021, most of whom suffered serious damage as a result.

There was a large amount of overlap with substance use disorder that occurs in conjunction with mental illness, the report indicated. About 14 percent of young adults battled both mental illness and substance use disorder that year. Multiracial adults accounted for the largest proportion of those meeting criteria for both a mental illness and a substance use disorder, while Asian adults had the lowest proportion.

Substance use and depressive episodes also appeared closely linked for adolescents, as significantly more of those who used illicit drugs experienced an episode than those who did not (27.7% vs 10.7%).

More than a fifth of people ages 12 and older — about 52.5 million people — used an illicit drug in 2021, most commonly marijuana, according to the report. About one-third of young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 have used marijuana, while nearly 40% of this age group said they used illicit drugs that year.

Of the 61.2 million people aged 12 and older surveyed, 9.2 million said they had abused opioids in 2021.

Taking it a step further, 16.5 percent of the population, representing 46.3 million people in the United States, met the DSM-5 criteria for a substance use disorder diagnosis in 2021. While nearly 30 million of people met the criteria for alcohol use disorder, there were also 24 million who were classified as having drug use disorder.

Alarmingly, 94% of people meeting the criteria for substance use disorder received no treatment of any kind in 2021. This was driven by the fact that nearly all expressed a feeling that they did not need treatment. Another 2.1% said they needed treatment but did not seek it, and just 1.1% – representing 447,000 people out of 40.7 million – acknowledged they needed treatment and sought it.

On the other hand, 72 percent of adults who said they had ever had a substance use problem considered themselves in recovery or recovering. Similarly, two-thirds of adults who said they had faced a mental health problem also said they were on the mend.

“As we work to improve behavioral health across the nation, HHS is committed to ensuring that all people facing mental health or substance use issues are connected to appropriate services and supports,” Becerra added.

  • Kristen Monaco is a staff writer, focusing on endocrinology, psychiatry, and nephrology news. Based in the New York City office, she has been with the company since 2015.

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