Emerging Adulthood: Addiction & Mental Health at the “In-Between” Stage

emerging adulthood

At Pine Grove, we are known for our developmentally tiered levels of care: specialty programs tailored to the needs of each age group. Our clinicians deliver evidence-based treatment to children, adolescents, young adults, middle-aged people, and older adults. Today, we would like to add another demographic to the list: people in the phase of emerging adulthood. This recently popularized term has begun to circulate through research circles – in today’s blog, we will explain the intricacies of addiction and mental health care at this “in-between” stage.

What is Emerging Adulthood?

Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD, began pioneering this field of study in 1995. By quizzing young people between the ages of 18 and 29 over a period of five years, he discovered some significant similarities among his younger respondents. These individuals were trying to carve out their places in the world, but at the same time, they did not yet feel like full-fledged adults.

Using these interviews as a basis, Dr. Arnett proposed the theory of emerging adulthood. He described this time as the period of growing independence and self-discovery between the end of adolescence to the responsibilities of young adulthood (stable employment, marriage, and parenthood).

According to Dr. Arnett, emerging adulthood can be defined as an…

  • Age of instability. After high school, young people move frequently – whether they go to college and stay in the dorms or get a job and live with friends.
  • Age of self-focus. Once high school has concluded and a young person has moved out, they get to make their own decisions free of parental oversight.
  • Age of feeling in between. Many people in this age bracket feel like they are taking responsibility, but also do not feel like “real adults.”
  • Age of identity exploration. Emerging adults are in the process of deciding what they want out of school, work, and relationships.
  • Age of possibilities. Most people in this demographic feel optimistic about their chances of “living better” than their parents did.

A Recent Development

Dr. Arnett has now written a book on this subject, which is entitled Emerging Adults in America: Coming of Age in the 21st Century. In this text, he claims that the phenomenon has only arisen within the last few decades in America.

Researchers posit that this has occurred as a result of socioeconomic shifts; for example, 50 years ago, the median age when people married was 22 for men and 20 for women. Today, men and women are, on average, 28 and 24 when they tie the knot. This can be explained by increased enrollment in higher education for both genders. In the 1940s, men were the sole targets of college recruitment; today, women make up the majority of American undergraduate students. Other innovations, such as birth control and career ambitions, have taken center stage for young people in the phase of emerging adulthood.

The Struggles of Emerging Adulthood

Each person’s experience of this developmental stage varies widely; it may be a period of triumph or tragedy. Well-adjusted young people whose parents equipped them for independence will likely prosper. However, others are vulnerable to mental health struggles and substance use disorders.

In a 2013 literature review, researchers summarized the co-occurring disorders of mental illness and addiction among emerging adults. Their findings indicate a marked gap in care for young people with serious mental health conditions and substance use problems.

“Though this group presents with unique challenges,” the researchers write, “few programs have been developed to address their specific needs.”

First, it is important to understand that this life phase (18-25) is when people are at the highest risk for developing problematic substance use. Additionally, comorbidity of addiction with SMACs (serious mental health conditions) is high at this age, which can complicate outcomes for those dealing with a dual diagnosis. These individuals also face age-related stressors related to identity, employment, and relationships. Their problems are significant and specific to emerging adulthood, and may include…

  • Leaving home
  • Pursuing higher education
  • Making independent decisions
  • Finding a job
  • Planning for the future
  • Establishing financial independence
  • Dating and getting married
  • Confirming one’s religious beliefs
  • Choosing a career path
  • Redefining parental roles
  • Taking responsibility for oneself
  • Starting a family

Because emerging adulthood is also a “peak time for alcohol and drug use,” it is important for young people in this stage to access care tailored to their needs. Instead of placing them in teen programs or adult programs, which can each feel like an awkward fit, centers have begun to offer young adult programming. In these treatment facilities, group and individual sessions address the needs of emerging adults.

Find Recovery at Pine Grove

For more information about age-appropriate care, please contact Pine Grove today. Our compassionate admissions staff will create a treatment plan that is fully customized for the needs of yourself or your loved one.

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