Mental Health in Emerging Adulthood

young womenFor many young people, the first symptoms of a mental health disorder coincide with the transition out of adolescence. People in this age group seem to have a different set of needs and responses to treatment than children, teens, and older adults with mental illness. In recognition of this, many state and private mental health providers have begun to develop programs targeted at young adults. But by identifying them as adults, they miss an important characteristic of this age group: emerging adults, with and without mental illness, do not see themselves as adolescents or adults, but somewhere in between.

Dr. Arnett found that many of the 18-25 year-olds he studied did not meet their own criteria for reaching adulthood. While one might assume that finishing college, settling in a career, marriage, and parenthood might rank high in their list of tasks for reaching adulthood, these life tasks actually ranked at the bottom of their lists. Ranking at the top of their lists are qualities of character: accepting responsibility for oneself and making independent decisions, along with the tangible goal of becoming financially independent.

Whether or not they have a mental health disorder, emerging adults are concerned with exploring an identity, role transitions in the family, peer relationships, and a valued role in society. Mental health practitioners and programs that seek to engage this age group must focus on teaching life skills and fostering supportive relationships as much as on helping their clients enter college and the workplace.

The appearance of mental health symptoms during emerging adulthood can delay or even halt the transition period. This is what often happens in a failure to launch situation. The good news is that emerging adulthood presents a window of opportunity. It is a period of developmental plasticity during which the brain is still maturing and a young person is able to develop new skills and strengths and change the course of past mistakes and problems. This is why it is important to access expert mental health care for emerging adults at the earliest stages of a problem.

Self-Concept and Identity in Emerging Adults

Emerging adulthood is a critical stage in the development of an identity and self-concept. As human beings mature, they are likely to develop a more coherent sense of self, with an increased sense of personal control. In emerging adults, their self-concept is still developing, and it is not unusual for them to experience periods of emotional instability and negative emotions related to the daily stress of life. Prolonged stress or the emergence of a mental illness can actually impede the development of a healthy self-concept and identity.

Importance of Goal Setting in Emerging Adults

Setting goals can help emerging adults move to the next stage in their development and is a sign of positive mental health. The pursuit of educational and occupational goals contributes to a greater sense of self-sufficiency and social responsibility.  Pursuit of interpersonal goals related to connection with others contributes to self-esteem and wellbeing.

Self-Regulation in Emerging Adults

One of the key developmental tasks of emerging adulthood is self-regulation, the ability to intentionally direct one’s behavior and resources to meet certain goals. Tod Heatherton of Dartmouth College describes four components of the “social brain” that help people maintain relationships with others and stay within a social group.

  1. Self-awareness – reflecting on one’s behavior and displays of emotion in relation to others. Self-awareness includes knowledge about one’s best and worst qualities. It encourages people to reflect on their actions and understand how they match personal values and beliefs with group standards. Too much self-awareness can be a problem if a person dwells on negative thoughts and feelings associated with depression.
  2. Awareness of others – being able to guess the mental and emotional states of others and predict their behavior accordingly. Psychologists call this ability “mentalizing” or “theory of mind.” Ultimately, it allows people to empathize with others and attempt to understand their thoughts and feelings.
  3. Threat detection – having the ability to detect threats of exclusion from within the social group. This set of skills such as reading of facial expressions and body language supports peoples’ fundamental need to belong and is especially important in complex social situations. People who struggle with loneliness, shyness, or social anxiety may experience too much threat detection, which makes them more sensitive to the possibility of social rejection.
  4. Self-regulation – regulating one’s actions and behavior to avoid being excluded from the group. People often strive to inhibit their impulses and desires, resist temptations, and control their displays of emotion to stay in good standing with the group and avoid the risk of social exclusion. But sometimes that is not enough. People also need to know when their actions have violated group norms and be able to fix the problem and repair damaged relationships.

The inhibition of impulses and desires needed for effective self-regulation can be a challenge for adolescents and emerging adults. This is especially true of young people who struggle with personality, mood, or trauma-based disorders. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) and cognitive-based therapies can  help emerging adults learn thought and emotion regulation, two important components of self-regulation.

If you or someone you know is showing signs of a possible mental health issue, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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