Claire Fultz of Jewish Community Services Speaks on Young Adults and Mental Health

Claire Fultz

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a huge emotional toll on our community, with young adults facing mental health challenges in unprecedented numbers. 

Today, one in five adults in our country experience a mental illness. Meanwhile, in December, the U.S Surgeon General issued a rare report, warning about the devastating mental health effects the pandemic has had on our youngest people. The report found that emergency room visits for teen mental health increased 31% since the start of the pandemic. And in Baltimore, 55% of Jewish young adults reported they were experiencing emotional or mental difficulties that adversely affected their daily lives. 

We spoke with Claire Fultz, Director of Mental Health at Jewish Community Services about the impact of the pandemic on the young adult population, how we are responding and what more needs to be done. 

What has contributed to the surge in mental health issues among young adults? 

There were many things contributing to this mental health crisis. A colleague of mine referred to this generation as the “Great Unlucky” given that young adults have already experienced several traumatic events including terrorist attacks, the recession, school shootings, living through upheaval in social and racial justice, and now the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  

Those aside, this is a challenging time anyway as young adults enter and navigate the “adult” world, historically depending on additional support, resources and connection through this period of transition. People in this age range, 18-29, are going through a period of “emerging adulthood” when young adults would otherwise be exploring their identity, many separating from their parents, exerting their independence and coming into their own.  

Instead, throughout the pandemic, their social lives were upended and those opportunities for personal growth and development which are so crucial during this time in people’s lives were disrupted. Young adults faced an increased sense of isolation, loneliness and lack of connection, and they missed important milestones such as graduations, weddings and opportunities to get together, meet new people and date.

Many found themselves remaining in or returning to their childhood homes, delaying moves such as a first apartment or dorm or college or vocational experience, while simultaneously facing a need for independence.   

For many, connection, if any, was virtual or through social media, which brings inherent risks in and of itself given our knowledge of risks for mental health issues inherent with heavy social media use by young adults. 

Social Media? 

Yes, including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and Twitter, among others. Especially when everyone was sheltering in place, the main connection young adults had to the greater world was through social media.  

Yet social media comes with an emphasis on perfection and appearance which exacerbates body image issues, fear of missing out and more. For young adults, social media use comes with this immediate, inherent and unconscious drive to compare oneself to whatever post they are seeing.  

We have much of an entire generation feeling the need to portray a superficial or false reality to live up to those they see on social media. Additionally, the societal stereotypes, discrimination and bullying that is occurring in the outside world is also happening on these platforms.

As a young adult pointed out to me, ‘If you are on social media, you only have to see one post or message to induce negativity. There are so many triggers.’ Our clinic administrative specialist at JCS, Allison Wolff, wrote a blog on this exact topic.  

What are you seeing in our community? 

We are seeing a rise in mental health challenges among those who suffered before as well as those who have no prior history. Young adults, in particular, have reported increased anxiety, avoidant behaviors and lack of sleep — and we know that sleep deprivation exacerbates risk for mental health symptoms. With increased loneliness and feeling trapped, suicide is higher across all ages. Anxiety and depression continue to rise. Substance use has increased as people self-medicate more, as has disordered eating.  

Now that it feels like life is opening up, shouldn’t it get better? 

In terms of opportunities for connection, in theory, yes, however we will likely see the consequences of the pandemic on mental health for years to come. As young adults return to work-life, or perhaps unemployment or college, relationship challenges and young parenting dilemmas, among others, will increase as people attempt to navigate adulthood in a post pandemic world.  

There is still very much insecurity — will a new variant come along and shut down everything again? Can I plan for my future? What is happening with my job? COVID-19 has brought prolonged uncertainty, and as human beings, we don’t deal well with uncertainty. All of this continues to be very debilitating for so many.  

How has the crisis changed the way we think about mental health? 

While nurturing mental health has always been important, given the prolonged nature of the pandemic, there is now greater attention to this topic. The pandemic has made us as a community more open to talking about mental health which is paramount for reducing stigma. Reports show that young adults are most open to discussing mental health which makes it more likely people will seek help. 

In addition, telehealth has made it easier for many to attend appointments without needing to factor in a commute or additional time. Many also report being more comfortable seeking support when able to access support from a screen instead of going into an office. This is due, of course, to the convenience and flexibility that telehealth offers, but also because stigma becomes less of a barrier when connecting virtually. 

For some, telehealth provides an additional sense of privacy by removing the risk of running into someone they know if they were to go in person to an office. At the same time, the crisis is made worse for those who are unable to engage in telehealth when opportunities for in-person appointments are reduced.  

The pandemic has heightened the need for everyone to prioritize community and individual mental wellness and to foster meaningful connection with others and positive identity formation. 

What is The Associated doing? 

The Associated and JCS have developed a Community Mental Wellness Resource Team comprised of staff from our sister organizations and partnering camps to evaluate mental wellness issues facing our community and implement strategies for addressing those issues. Through this team, we seek to address mental wellness on a communal level, foster a culture of proactive mental well-being and holistic self-care, serve as a new, multi-disciplinary resource available to Jewish communal institutions, be there for each other and for the constituencies we serve, and approach this work with an understanding of, appreciation for, and connection to Jewish values around mental health and wellness.  

Is there anything inherently Jewish that the community needs to think about when it thinks about mental health? 

Yes. Our discussion of missed milestones and interrupted opportunities for identity formation and connection, is particularly salient for the many young adults who, due to the pandemic, were denied opportunities to experience Jewish traditions valuing face-to-face interactions. This includes those young adults who were planning to participate in Israel engagement programs, Birthright Israel summer trips, Moishe House, Hillel, OneTable and other opportunities to connect with the Jewish community.  

A recent study found that the increased loneliness stemming from these missed opportunities was the single most significant contributing factor for mental health difficulties experienced by Jewish young adults with this risk being even higher for those who are ‘secular/cultural,’ female, and/or who identify as LGBTQ.  

This same study also found that unless the connections were deep, meaningful and positive, increased interactions, regardless of if in person or online, did little to relieve loneliness. This again emphasizes that fostering meaningful connections and engagement is of utmost importance in tackling this crisis.  

What more do we need to tackle this crisis? 

As we build connections and strive to address the huge emotional toll on individuals and young adults in our community, we need to also be developing resources which specifically address the unique needs of Jewish young adults of color and Jewish young adults who are members of LGBTQIA+ communities. 

Anything else? 

One of the most difficult aspects to all of this, is that we have no definitive answers for how long the mental health crisis will last or what additional consequences are yet to be discovered. Our knowledge of the true scope of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on mental health is continually evolving. We are only beginning to scrape the surface in terms of our understanding, but we estimate we will be experiencing the negative effects on mental health over the long haul, well after the pandemic subsides.  

As such, it is more important than ever that we continue to prioritize mental health, that we intentionally act in ways which encourage a culture of mental wellness and connection and that we demonstrate and exercise compassion for our fellow humans and for ourselves.  

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The Associated is a home for everyone in the Baltimore Jewish community. We offer several email lists to help people find a community, engage with their peers and support Jewish journeys around the world.

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