Note: First name pseudonyms are used for some subjects who asked not to be identified.
In the months since the coronavirus pandemic began, Ronit Sholkoff, a 20-year-old junior at UC Berkeley, has been feeling “powerless,” “overwhelmed” and unsure of what she can do to make the situation any better.
“When you’re young, you’re told that this is your time to meet new people, do new things, take risks,” Sholkoff said. “All of that was totally taken away.”
Sholkoff returned to her family in Los Angeles after classes were shifted online in March and came back to Berkeley last month to attend the fall semester remotely. She said her housing situation, a Jewish co-op with nine other people, helps a lot.
Still, there are “lots of ups and downs,” she said.
Her story is a common one right now, reflecting a larger mental health crisis affecting young adults around the country. A widely covered study by the Centers for Disease Control released on Aug. 14 found that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting the mental health of young adults, most acutely 18- to 24-year-olds. One in four had seriously considered suicide.
The reasons why young adults may be the most hard-hit by the “pandemic blues” is manifold, said several mental health experts. But they attribute it to two overarching problems posed by the pandemic.
This age group is experiencing pivotal life events — going to college, living away from home, looking for a first job, searching for a romantic partner — all while navigating the stresses of the pandemic. Concurrently, the normal avenues for socializing and decompressing, whether it be going to the gym, hanging out with friends at a bar or attending synagogue events, are mostly off limits.
“They’re right now on the cusp of adulthood,” said Nicole Hakimi, program manager for ENGAJ, a young adults group at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. “And then there is this crisis. They are having a crisis with their identity as an adult. And no one is telling them what to do. They’re the discerning adult.”
Hakimi said her program has turned into a lifeline for some of its participants. Since March, the group has been meeting for virtual happy hours and Shabbat dinners.
“The community needs more support now than ever,” she said. “They’re turning to me and my program as their Jewish home. What do I do? I’m not sitting here coming with the wisdom of the sages. I’m providing happy hour.”
For “Rachel,” a 26-year-old from Mountain View and ENGAJ alumna, Passover was supposed to provide some respite from lockdown. But the moment of relief did not come for her. Even though she was able to do a Zoom seder with her family in April, being thousands of miles away from them and cooped up alone “spiraled” her into a depressive state.
“It was hard,” she said. “I was still getting used to being isolated, being socially distanced.”
She says she turned to marijuana and alcohol to numb herself and spent a lot of time playing the popular video game Animal Crossing, a triad of coping mechanisms whose usage has spiked during the pandemic.
While she said she’s recently turned to healthier habits, such as hiking and seeing a small group of friends, she’s worried that Rosh Hashanah will bring back the previous feelings of isolation she had during Passover.
When you’re young, you’re told that this is your time to meet new people, do new things, take risks. All of that was totally taken away.
And on top of it all, dating is particularly challenging during the pandemic. “I should be meeting a nice Jewish boy to start a life with,” she said. “It’s hard being single in the pandemic.”
At Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, the young adult community has shifted all of its programming online. Known for its monthly Late Shabbats with tequila shots and tacos, the community is a cornerstone of people’s social lives and search for a partner, said Rabbi Jason Rodich, who oversees the group.
“What I’ve seen is the best of times and the worst of times,” said Rodich. “People [are] really suffering. Losing their jobs, having to leave their friendships… a real breakdown of things. We had something that I was very proud of. And it was ripped out. Like a rug.”
“Karl,” a 28-year-old member of the Emanu-El young adult community who was diagnosed with anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder in his early teens, said the pandemic has impacted his mental health.
He hasn’t been able to see his family because his parents are older and live with a grandmother, who is in her 90s.
“They don’t feel comfortable seeing younger people who are out,” he said. “That part is definitely tough. I’m very close to my family.” He’s anxious about how the virus is being handled at the federal level and about the upcoming presidential election.
“I feel like I’m significantly more stressed about the well-being and the future of people in the United States,” he said.
He had quit his job three weeks before the shelter-in-place orders went into effect and had to apply for unemployment. He and his girlfriend eventually moved to Colorado after their San Francisco rent became unaffordable at $1,800 per month. His mental health has started to improve, he says, with the solitude and larger apartment in Colorado.
Danielle Kamis, an ENGAJ alumna and Los Altos psychiatrist, said she’s seeing the phenomenon known as “doom scrolling,” a term that surfaced during the pandemic and refers to continuously and compulsively looking at sad or negative news, among her young adult clients. She said many of them are staying up very late at night with their devices.
“They get all these circadian rhythm issues,” Kamis said. “People with depression or anxiety, this additional stress pushes them over the edge.”
She is offering her clients some common strategies right now. First, keep a routine that closely resembles the one you had pre-Covid. Next, wake up and fall asleep at the same time. Kamis even suggests setting an alarm to go to bed.
“We set an alarm to get up,” she said. “Why don’t we set an alarm to go to sleep?” And finally, in the mornings, get dressed and prepare as if you were headed to work.
Laurie Pantell, a marriage and family therapist in Oakland, said that possibly the most challenging aspect for young adults is the lack of a clear end date to the pandemic.
What is she prescribing? “Staying in the present,” Pantell said. “That’s all we have. We don’t have the future. We don’t have the past. I’m encouraging people to be creative,” like one of her clients who recently bought a small trampoline.
“I think those subtle shifts can make a big difference in one’s outlook,” she said. “Just sticking to, ‘What can I do today to bring in a little bit of joy?’”
Mental health resources
San Francisco Suicide Prevention — sfsuicide.org or hotline at (415) 781-0500
Greenlight Clinic — Free mental health clinic serving ages 14 to 26
Virus Anxiety — Website with mental health resources during the pandemic