Ninna Ragasa was 24 years old when doctors discovered a mass in the left hemisphere of her brain. Further imaging revealed that Ragasa had an arteriovenous malformation, a tangle of blood vessels that cut off the flow of oxygen to her brain.
Doctors suggested removing the mass to avoid the possibility of it rupturing, a potentially fatal outcome. Ragasa, an interior design graduate student at New York City’s Pratt Institute, worried that brain surgery would hurt her mobility and career aspirations.
“Being a designer was easy for me,” says Ragasa, who is a friend of mine.
But the procedure went smoothly and Ragasa returned to his life at Pratt. Then, about a year after the surgery, Ragasa began to fall out. At first, he blamed his hard-working, partying lifestyle and cut back on drinking. But she kept falling. So she switched from stilettos to chunky boots and then to flip flops. Nothing helped. One day Ragasa fell while getting off the subway and had to crawl to her mother’s house.
Scans revealed that Ragasa’s brain had swollen after the procedure, causing him to gradually lose mobility on the right side of his body. Ragasa could no longer handle the physical demands of being an art student, such as building models and drawing. So he dropped out of school and found a job that included health insurance to pay for his physical therapy treatments. She felt, he says, totally lost.
Many of us go off the rails at some point in our lives. We can get sick like Ragasa, get divorced, get fired or lose a loved one. Our age when a calamity strikes can profoundly influence our response to the event, research suggests, and young adults are particularly vulnerable to losing their way. That’s in part because when the rites of passage that mark the transition from childhood to adulthood are delayed or missed, young adults can feel uprooted and increasingly insecure about the future, a point highlighted by the plummeting well-being of this cohort during the ongoing pandemic.
Researchers have not always treated young adulthood as markedly different from other adult years. But it is now well established that the human brain matures up to 20 years (serial number: 05/22/19). And social and economic changes in recent generations mean that the once-linear path from living at home to moving out and starting a family of your own has lengthened and become considerably more irregular. And for years, climate change has added a growing uncertainty to the already tense mix (Serial number: 8/18/21). The pandemic, in other words, did not spark the mental health crisis among young adults, but merely accelerated existing trends.
The ages of 18 to 25 are an intense time of exploration in love, work and worldview. This age range should be treated as a unique development periodother than being a child or a full-fledged adult, wrote psychologist Jeffrey Arnett of Clark University in Worcester, Ma., in a seminal 2000 article in American psychologist. “Emerging adulthood is a time of life in which many different directions remain possible, in which little has been decided with certainty about the future, in which the scope of independent exploration of life’s possibilities is higher for most people than at any other time in life. course of life.”
The pandemic has forced us to ask: What happens when that “field of independent exploration of life’s possibilities” stagnates or even shrinks?
The evidence so far suggests the consequences for young adults could be dire. Instead of maturing, the personalities of this group have become more youthfulI reported last month (Serial number: 9/28/22). In general, those under 30 have become less conscientious, less agreeable, and more neurotic. Compared to older adults, younger adults also reported higher levels of anxiety, depression and feelings of loneliness during the pandemic.
A survey of approximately 2,600 American adults conducted 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, is high early in life and later, but low in middle age. In this view, despaironce reserved for middle age, it seems it has become the badge of youth.
“The left part of the ‘U’ it has essentially completely flattened out,” study co-author and Harvard University epidemiologist Tyler VanderWeele wrote in Psychology Today. “Young people… report being less happy and less healthy; having less meaning, greater character struggles, and poor relationships; Y [being] less financially stable compared to their older counterparts.”
Decisions made during early adulthood can also have profound side effects. Temporarily delaying college entry at the start of the pandemic, for example, could become a permanent decision, thereby radically changing one’s life trajectory.
Some young adults will bounce back 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 period of development, it snowballs.”
Damian’s comment reminded me of a conversation I had over a year ago with Cornell University developmental psychologist Anthony Burrow. Quite presciently, shortly before the pandemic, Burrow had begun to characterize a phenomenon he referred to as “derailment.” Derailment, Burrow told me, refers to people’s feeling that their life has drifted off course. That feeling can lead people to lose their sense of identity, to struggle to answer the question: Who I am?
“Derailment is a subjective feeling that you can’t reconcile who you were with who you are,” says Burrow. “That train was headed in one direction on those tracks, but it can no longer proceed on that track.”
One way to measure derailment during the pandemic is to ask ourselves, “Am I still the same person I was before the pandemic?” Burrow says. “It’s a basic question with profound implications.”
People in the United States who feel derailed struggle with anxiety, depression, and a reduced sense of well-being, Burrow and his team reported in 2020 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Also, those feelings of derailment are associated with depressive symptoms within a year or more.
But Burrow’s work also points to ways to get our metaphorical trains moving again. In that same study, he found that journaling, having people write a narrative that links their me past and present — can help them regain that sense of continuity and reset goals for the future.
Other research suggests that taking a more flexible approach East Asian Mentality it could help people cope with a life that veers off course. The Japanese derailed—that is, they don’t show the same decline in well-being seen 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 that life should follow a linear course, Japanese people tend to believe that life is dialectical, or full of contradictions and constantly changing. Derailments, as such, are to be expected.
Ragasa, who moved to the United States from the Philippines as a child, understands that flow. But losing his identity at age 20, at a time when he felt physically and emotionally invincible, left her reeling. He eventually moved to Vermont and had a son.
Still, it took years for him to accept that the old art track he was on was gone forever. “I had to mourn him and let him go,” she says. Now, she says, she has begun the arduous process of finding a new lead. “I still feel lost,” she says. “I have to find out who I am now.”