Much of what is known about young adults is based on Arnett’s theory of emerging adulthood, however, this research is largely based on the Millennial generation. As Generation Z (“Gen Zers”) begins to enter college, Arnett’s research requires revisiting, as each generation is molded by factors including significant events, technology and education among others. For example, Millennials are described as confrontational, less willing to accept diverse points of view and are known to seek support from peers, whereas Gen Zers are described to have fewer confrontations and more dialogue, and are known to seek support from family (Francis & Heofel, 2018; Seemiller & Grace, 2016). As such, research is needed to understand how typical transition-to-adulthood stressors are impacted by current issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, social unrest and political discourse. As such, this study seeks to answer the following research questions: 1) What were the most commonly discussed stressors experienced among first-year college students in 2020? and 2) How and why did participants seek support?
This is a qualitative sub-study of a mixed-methods longitudinal project aiming to understand the impact of COVID-19 on university first-year students’ mental health. Using a stratified random sample (based on race/ethnicity and gender), 30 students were selected to participate in virtual semi-structured interviews. The interview protocol explored the perceived impact of COVID-19, social unrest and political discourse on participant mental health, and mental health service participation. A research team that included young adults interviewed, audio-recorded, transcribed verbatim and thematically coded interviews using an inductive analysis approach.
Twenty-eight students participated: 57% female, 43% male; 29% Asian, 18% Black, 29% Latinx, 25% White. All reported high levels of stress and distress related to COVID-19 and social unrest (i.e., COVID-19 exposure or diagnosis, social isolation, feelings of numbness in response to police brutality). Yet, seldom did students participate in mental health services to alleviate distress, largely due to perceptions that their concerns were “not big enough.” Instead, despite increased familial conflict around social and political issues, students primarily sought support from their family parents. Additionally, students described experiencing stress with friends around COVID-19. Students also described an inner tension as part of their process of identity development and reconciliation of their own perspectives with the views and values of their family and peers. Despite high levels of stress, students described a general hesitancy to discuss their concerns with friends out of fear of creating conflict and impeding budding friendships.
Conclusion and Implications
Stress and conflict during the transition from adolescence to adulthood were exacerbated by COVID-19, social unrest and political discourse. Despite high levels of stress, study findings echo existing research demonstrating parents as the dominant source of support for Generation Z first-year college students. This study illuminates that emerging adult reliance on family and friends for mental health and emotional support may present strain, stress and conflict due to differing values, perspectives and political views among one’s social network.