Home News The pandemic shows us how crises derail young adults’ lives for decades

The pandemic shows us how crises derail young adults’ lives for decades


Ninna Ragasa was 24 years old when doctors discovered a mass on the left hemisphere of her brain. Further imaging revealed that Ragasa had an arteriovenous malformation, a tangle of blood vessels that disrupt the flow of oxygen to the brain. 

Doctors suggested removing the mass to avoid the possibility of it rupturing, a potentially fatal outcome. Ragasa, a graduate student in interior design at the Pratt Institute in New York City, worried that the brain surgery would hurt her mobility and her career aspirations.

“Being a designer came easily to me,” says Ragasa, who is a friend of mine.

But the procedure went smoothly, and Ragasa returned to her life at Pratt. Then a year or so after the surgery, Ragasa started falling. At first, she blamed her hard-work, hard-party lifestyle and cut back on drinks. But she kept falling. So she switched from spike heels to chunky boots and then to flip flops. Nothing helped. One day Ragasa fell getting off the subway and had to crawl to her mother’s house.

Scans revealed that Ragasa’s brain had swelled after the procedure, causing her to gradually lose mobility along the right side of her body. Ragasa could no longer handle the physical demands of being an art student, such as building models and drawing. So she dropped out of school and found a job that came with medical insurance to pay for her physical therapy treatments. She felt, she says, totally lost.   

Many of us get derailed at some point in our lives. We may get sick like Ragasa, divorced, laid off or lose a loved one. Our age when calamity strikes can profoundly influence our response to the event, research suggests, with young adults particularly vulnerable to getting thrown off course. That’s partially because when the rites of passage that mark the transition from childhood to adulthood are delayed or lost, young adults can feel unmoored and increasingly uncertain about the future — a point driven home by this cohort’s plummeting well-being during the ongoing pandemic. 

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Researchers have not always treated young adulthood as markedly different from other adult years. But it’s now well established that the human brain matures well into one’s 20s (SN: 5/22/19). And social and economic changes in recent generations mean that the once linear path from living in one’s parents’ home to moving out and starting one’s own family has elongated and become considerably more jagged. And for years, climate change has added mounting uncertainty to the already fraught mix (SN: 8/18/21). The pandemic, in other words, did not cause the mental health crisis among young adults, but merely accelerated existing trends. 

Ages 18 to 25 constitute an intense time of exploration in love, work and worldview. This age band should be treated as a unique developmental period, distinct from either being a child or a full-fledged adult, psychologist Jeffrey Arnett of Clark University in Worcester, Ma., wrote in a seminal 2000 paper in American Psychologist. “Emerging adulthood is a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course.” 

The pandemic has forced us to ask: What happens when that “scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities” gets stalled or even curtailed? 

The evidence so far suggests that the fallout for young adults could be dire. Instead of maturing, this group’s personalities have become more juvenile, I reported last month (SN: 9/28/22). In general, those under age 30 have become less conscientious, less agreeable and more neurotic. Compared with older adults, young adults have also reported higher levels of anxiety, depression and feelings of loneliness during the pandemic.  

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A survey of roughly 2,600 U.S. adults taken in January 2022, showed that members of this group have distorted the U-curve. This somewhat controversial theory holds that well-being, including happiness and health, are high in early and later life but low in middle age. In this view, despair, once reserved for middle age, has, it seems, become the badge of youth. 

“The left part of the ‘U’ has essentially completely flattened,” wrote study coauthor and Harvard University epidemiologist Tyler VanderWeele in Psychology Today. “Young people … report being less happy and less healthy; having less meaning, greater struggles with character, and poor relationships; and [being] less financially stable compared to their older counterparts.” 

Decisions made during young adulthood can also have profound knock-on effects. Temporarily delaying going to college at the pandemic’s onset, for instance, could become a permanent decision, thereby radically shifting the trajectory of one’s life.

Some young adults will recover from this event without much trouble, but others may struggle, says personality psychologist Rodica Damian of the University of Houston. “Sometimes when something happens during a critical development period, there is a snowball effect.” 

Damian’s comment reminded me of a conversation I had more than a year ago with developmental psychologist Anthony Burrow of Cornell University. Rather presciently, shortly before the pandemic hit, Burrow had begun characterizing a phenomenon he referred to as “derailment.” Derailment, Burrow told me, refers to people’s feeling that their life has been thrown off course. That feeling can lead people to lose their sense of identity, to struggle to answer the question: Who am I? 

“Derailment is a subjective sense that who you were cannot be reconciled with who you are,” Burrow says. “That train was heading in one direction on those tracks, but can no longer advance on that track.” 

One way to gauge derailment during the pandemic is to ask ourselves: “Am I still the same person as I was pre-pandemic?” Burrow says. “It’s a basic question with profound implications.” 

People in the United States who feel derailed struggle with anxiety, depression and reduced feelings of well-being, Burrow and his team reported in 2020 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Moreover, those feelings of derailment are associated with depressive symptoms a year or more down the road. 

But Burrow’s work also points to ways to get our metaphorical trains back on track. In that same study, he found that journaling — having people write a narrative that stitches together their past and present selves — can help them regain that sense of continuity and reestablish goals for the future.  

Other research suggests that adopting a more flexible East Asian mindset could help people cope with a life that veers off course. Derailed Japanese individuals, that is, do not show the same drop in well-being observed as Westerners, researchers reported in 2021 in the Journal of Happiness Studies. The researchers suspect that the difference lies in thinking styles. While Westerners tend to believe life should follow a linear course, Japanese people tend to believe life is dialectic, or full of contradictions and in constant flux. Derailments, as such, are to be expected. 

Ragasa, who moved to the United States from the Philippines as a child, understands that flux. But losing her identity in her 20s, at a time when she felt physically and emotionally invincible, left her reeling. She eventually moved to Vermont and had a son.

Still, she took years to accept that the old art track she was on was gone forever. “I had to mourn it and let it go,” she says. Now, she says, she has begun the arduous process of finding a new track. “I still feel lost,” she says. “I have to figure out who I am now.”

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