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COVID-19 is infecting more and more people in their teens and 20s. That's contributing to recent outbreaks, especially in the South and West. Public health officials are imploring young adults to limit social contact to help protect their more vulnerable elders, but many younger people see isolation as a much greater risk to their own mental health, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.
YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Audrey just turned 18 and achieved a lot already. She's a college-bound student athlete who volunteered and worked in student government in high school. But for years, she struggled with anxiety, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder, all of which drove her to work harder.
AUDREY: I was spending so much time on my homework, I felt like I was losing my friends. So my thoughts would race over and over again about my friends, and then I would have the difficult thoughts about suicide and some scarier stuff.
NOGUCHI: That landed Audrey - who withheld her name for medical privacy - in treatment last fall. She says the coping skills she learned gave her perspective on quarantine.
AUDREY: I know all about how seeing friends and seeing people outside in social interaction is vital for survival.
NOGUCHI: It's not that she isn't worried about COVID-19. In fact, cases are spiking in her hometown of Charlotte, N.C. So Audrey wears masks and stays 6 feet from friends. But for her generation, she says, infection isn't the primary threat.
AUDREY: A lot of people are calling attention to coronavirus because it's right in front of us, but at the same time, teens depression's rate - it's a silent threat.
NOGUCHI: The risks of infection differ by generation. For many young adults, life at a social distance without peer support comes at a high cost to mental health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says nearly half of people between 18 and 29 report feeling symptoms of anxiety or depression. That's twice the rate of their parents and three times higher than their grandparents. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people under 35. Yet somehow, says Audrey, that's not talked about.
AUDREY: We haven't seen the government or we haven't seen adults as passionate about the things that we really care about, like mental health and climate issues.
NOGUCHI: Menlo Park, Calif., psychologist Lisa Jacobs counsels mostly adolescents and young adults. She says their risk calculations differ.
LISA JACOBS: They are appropriately realizing that isolation is a risk for them, as well. It's a risk factor for depression, and depression is a risk factor for suicide. And 8% of American teens attempt suicide each year.
NOGUCHI: Jacobs says many patients complain older generations fail to address their fears of school shootings and climate change.
JACOBS: After not being protected, after not being taken seriously, they were asked to take extreme measures to protect other groups and to put themselves at risk by doing so.
NOGUCHI: Scientists say socialization isn't a luxury for the young. It's critical for development. Gregory Lewis studies social interaction at Indiana University. He says young brains need social connection to feel secure.
GREGORY LEWIS: We expect, as a human being, to have other people there to share the stressful times and to be our backup. And when they're not there physically, that in and of itself tells our nervous system, you're in a dangerous environment because you don't have these people here.
NOGUCHI: Even for digital natives who grew up with smartphones, talking by small screen offers no replacement for a calming hug. Older adults, he says, had more time to develop their social networks and find partners.
LEWIS: Younger people are missing a larger percentage of what previously was there to buffer them.
NOGUCHI: So the societal challenge, he says, is finding ways to balance risks of infection against the need to foster those essential social bonds. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.
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