No declines in mental health among young adults at the beginning of the pandemic

When restrictions were introduced at the beginning of the pandemic, many assumed that young adults' mental health would deteriorate rapidly due to factors such as social isolation, unemployment and economic stress. However, a new large study shows that neither young adults from the majority population nor from ethnic minorities felt markedly worse. 

The study followed over 3,000 young adults in Germany from the age of 17 until they were 25 years old. The researchers collected information on self-reported anxiety, depression, somatic symptoms, and life satisfaction at three time points. Two before the pandemic and one during the early stage of the pandemic in April-May 2020. On average, young adults felt better at the early stage of the pandemic than when surveyed two years earlier when they were about 23 years old. 

– The initial challenges posed by the pandemic did not involve widespread and drastic deterioration of mental health, says Stephanie Plenty, Associate Professor of Sociology and researcher at the Institute for Future Studies, one of the study’s authors. 

A key aim of the study was to investigate whether young adults from ethnic minorities had been affected worse than their peers from the majority population. Overall, the patterns look very similar, but with some important differences. For example, a large proportion of young adults with an Asian background experienced increased ethnic discrimination, and more young adults with Asian, Turkish, Middle Eastern and African origins experienced increased health-related worry compared with young people from the majority population. 

– Among these young adults, we saw weaker improvements in mental health than in the majority population. If discrimination and health worries continued throughout the pandemic, then their mental health may have deteriorated. This can mean inequalities in mental health between young people from minority groups and the majority population, says Stephanie Plenty.  

The result that most young adults did not feel substantially worse challenges previous studies pointing to declines in mental health in the beginning of the pandemic. Many early studies were based on small and non-representative samples and did not follow young people from before the pandemic began. 

– For example, if only young people who respond to an online advertisement, were in contact with healthcare or support services, were students or those surveyed at one time point were examined, it risks giving an inaccurate picture of young adults in general, says Stephanie Plenty. 

The results are less surprising when you consider how mental health usually looks at different ages according to Stephanie Plenty.  

– Generally, younger 20-year-olds typically feel worse than older 20-year-olds. After declining during the teenage years, mental health often tends to start improving when you get a little older as a young adult, says Stephanie Plenty.    

An alternative explanation for the findings may be that the pandemic gave many young people a much needed break.  

– Life is demanding at this age, with lots of new transitions happening. Young adults must establish themselves in the labor market, find housing and they begin more serious romantic relationships, all of which are often experienced as stressful. In the beginning, the pandemic may have given some young adults a feeling that they could slow down a little, says Stephanie Plenty.  

While the study’s results are positive in many ways, it also points to some problems. For example, stressors related to the pandemic such as worries about one’s finances or health, increased discrimination and direct contact with covid-19 are linked to declines in mental health. 

– Pandemic-related stressors may have worsened during the course of the pandemic. Therefore, strategies are needed to help young adults who have experienced, for example, persistent worries about their finances or health to emerge from the pandemic positively. The results also highlight the ethnic discrimination and increased health worries that young adults from certain minority groups experience, so we need to address these inequities and monitor the continued impact of the pandemic, says Stephanie Plenty.   

The study “Changes in young adults’ mental well-being before and during the early stage of the COVID-19 pandemic: disparities between ethnic groups in Germany” is published (open access) in the scientific journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health.  


Stephanie Plenty, +46 73 932 45 20, [email protected]