How to Take Care of Your Mental Health in a Quarter-Life Crisis
Hey — how are you?
If your instinct is to mutter “Fine” and move on, we get it. The sky isn’t falling, your hair isn’t on fire, and presumably, the day is moving along more or less as expected. But the absence of an immediate and present danger does not mean everything is fine. In fact, more than before, the truth is, we are not fine. The last few years have done a real number on our collective stability — physically, culturally, economically. On an individual level, we’re all suffering from more internal struggles — mentally, emotionally, socially. It’s not fine, and that’s okay.
Fortunately, we have a tool to help us navigate churning waters: therapy. No longer a punchline or a secret shame, therapy provides the care and attention needed for us to heal, thrive, and live in a way that reflects our values and goals. For young adults in the post-Covid world, therapy, in its limitless iterations, can be a necessary lifeline in the present and an essential building block for a happy, healthy future.
We asked Chicago-area experts their thoughts about how young adults are faring these days, how to seek support, and what to know about modern therapy to help get you through this thing called life.
What is the current state of mental health for young adults?
Much is said about the quarter-life crisis — the time when young adults are ending their proverbial and/or literal childhood, and are now thrust into the adult world. Twenty-somethings are expected to find gainful employment, make meaningful contributions to society, start exploring relationships through a more mature lens, and in general, start living their adult life. While there are no standards or markers that fit every person and situation, a person’s 20s to 30s are often a time of great excitement, promise, and mobility — but also turmoil, confusion, and anxiety. Throw in a global, historic pandemic and the still-unfolding repercussions, and you have a generation on edge.
“There are a lot of ups and downs in terms of the mental health in this age range. On one hand, a lot more of us are reaching out for help. On the other hand, the world is such a different place than it was for our parents’ generation, and I can see a lot of people struggling to figure out what they want to do in life,” says Liz Vohasek, a 26-year-old Masters-level counseling intern who understands first-hand the current mental health climate for her and her peers. “Trying to figure out who you are is a vital part of this time frame, and that can be terrifying. What do you like to do? What do you want to do for work? Do you want a career? Will you want children in the future? A partner? Sexual orientation? All of these things can add up to a lot of stress on the plates of young people, and therefore can lead to anxiety, depression, or anger at the world.”
Licensed marriage and family therapist Bridget Gregory Pileggi agrees. “There is so much anxiety — for all ages! Anxiety has always been a major player in mental health, but it is absolutely off the charts these days,” says Bridget. “A piece of that is because access to information about mental health is at an all-time high — thank goodness — and folks are finally able to really see the vast scope of anxiety and get diagnosed.”
Bridget pointed out that while something like panic attacks are overwhelming events, there are other day-to-day experiences of anxiety that can be “covert and insidious,” and the tendency has been to explain it away.
“We find lots of ways to explain away the destructive hum of anxiety… we invalidate our own experience either out of ignorance, denial, or worse, a lack of self-love or a habit taught to us by the generations ahead of us,” says Bridget. “Anxiety is also misdiagnosed as depression or something else so frequently.”
Is Self-Care a Self-Cure?
If the awareness has been more present, it seems so has the “cure.” Merriam-Webster added self-care to its definition list in 2018, but the term for taking care of oneself by any definition has taken on a tsunami of importance during and after the Covid pandemic.
“Caring for our physical and mental health through that higher level self-care is absolutely the number one most important thing,” says Bridget. “Being able to work to know yourself and your body and truly understand your patterns and where they come from and how to stop negative cycles, both mental and physical — this is how we grow emotionally and stay healthy physically. To reach emotional maturity is the best path to living a truly happy life.”
So is eating a sleeve of Oreos self-care the same way exercising or journaling or going to therapy is self-care? Both Bridget and Liz agree that self-care is whatever you want or need it to be, and it’s going to be as personal and varied as each individual, especially depending on where they are on their emotional journey. The point is not what you are doing, but that you are making active choices to better your mood, day, situation, and life.
“Engaging in at least one self-care activity a day, whether the light or hefty type, improves mood and decreases stress levels. Without self-care, we become more and more susceptible to sadness, mood swings, anxiety, and overall low mood,” says Liz. “Everyone needs to engage in self-care, especially in the recent years where we were all isolated and in need of social contact. Many of our lives have changed recently, and we’ve had to find new ways to adapt. For me, self-care looks like writing my novels, hanging out with my bunny, and playing Animal Crossing. These activities allow me to fully relax and be aware of my body and mind.”
Facing the Stigma
While talking about self-care is mainstream, talking about its cousin therapy still is not. Both Bridget and Liz noted that the stigma of therapy is breaking down because it seems like younger millennials and Generation Z are more open about their internal lives, but it’s not completely normalized for general consumption yet.
“We still have a long way to go. I believe every single person should be in therapy at least once in their lives. I also believe that mental health still carries a huge weight in society. I do see an increase in requests for therapy, especially after the pandemic,” says Liz. “As someone who has been a client of therapy myself, I know just how helpful it can be to have a third party listen. We’ve all got things going on that we could use support on, and I’m glad to see that more and more people are reaching out for help.”
Bridget agrees that everyone should have a therapist. “Even if you only see them once a month or quarterly. Not everyone needs weekly therapy all the time. But it is awesome to have the number for someone you can reach out to when things get nuts,” says Bridget. “Unexpected stressors come up all the time and sometimes it’s nice to call up a person you’ve known a while but don’t see often and talk through things with them.”
Ready for help. Now what?
The first step is recognizing that outside support could be beneficial, but it can be hard for young adults to feel confident enough to actually reach out for that help. As young adults are in the beginning stages of “adulting,” and previous generations haven’t been as open about mental health struggles, many may not know how to find the support they need. But modern technology and a more digitally connected world has helped make the process more customizable to each person so you are spending your time and energy in the right places.
Thanks to the pandemic, telehealth appointments are widely accepted by licensed therapists, creating one less barrier to seeking help. Online therapy providers, like BetterHealth.com, offer convenience of texting and maybe is a more affordable option, especially for those who want to test the waters first. Some employers offer an Employee Assistance Program, or EAP, which can cover a wide range of services, including therapy and mental health consultations.
Both Bridget and Liz suggested reviewing profiles of potential therapists on PsychologyToday.com, which lists all the mental health professionals in your area as well as different programs and specialties. Another option is to ask your primary care doctor for a referral. Trusted friends or a family member could be good resources, if you are comfortable, or a quick search on a local social media will bring up names and practices to research. The purpose is not to find the needle in the haystack immediately, but to start the process to help you decide what style, personality, and process you think would be compatible with your needs at this time.
Liz recommends reaching out to several multiple therapists at a time, and then choosing from the ones that reply in a way you find comforting or helpful. “There are so many therapists doing various kinds of therapy and counseling — there is a right match for where you are in the moment.”
Bridget agrees, adding that some might do a short consultation call to get started. “A lot of times you can get a good sense for a therapist in their bio on their website or directory listing. If you read what they’ve written and it resonates, reach out. If sitting with them and talking about why you are there seeking therapy feels like a positive experience, then that is awesome. If you don’t feel a connection or don’t like them in person you move on and try someone else,” say Bridget.
Finding the right fit may involve trial-and-error and can evolve over time.
“What I needed last year may not be what I need today because I am growing and my needs are changing,” notes Bridget. “A good therapist that you have built a relationship with will be able to evolve with you. It’s a beautiful thing to get to be a part of.”
And finally, do yourself a favor by thinking beyond the couch cliché. “Therapy doesn’t always have to be sitting and talking. I like to take breaks sometimes with clients and play games, color, paint, or just talk about the good in the hard days,” says Liz. “As someone who has been in therapy since the second grade, I deeply know the struggle of talking to someone. Know that as therapists, we genuinely have your best interest at heart, and we will be your cheerleader as you get through the struggles of life.”
Bridget echoes this, saying how important it is to be a good advocate for your own health and well-being, and therapy can help clarify your needs and goals. Her advice: “Don’t settle! You can work to feel better; things can be better. Therapists want to help you in that process. Sometimes we are the barrier to getting to a better place. Sometimes we have to be advocates for ourselves to ourselves.”
Life is hard enough, but it’s easier when we share the load.
Meet the Experts:
Bridget Gregory Pileggi, LMFT, specializes in individual, couple, and family therapy. As a graduate of The Family Institute at Northwestern University, Bridget earned a Master of Science in Marital and Family Therapy and received extensive clinical training at the Family Institute’s Bette D. Harris Family and Child Clinic. She is currently serving as a practitioner at Chicago Counseling Collaborative, working with a broad spectrum of clients. Among her areas of interest are young adults, couples in conflict, life transitions, self-esteem, communication, couples preparing for marriage, first time parents, blended families, and sexual relationship and intimacy therapy.
Liz Vohasek is an advanced Masters-level counseling intern, acquiring her degree from the Master of Science in Clinical Psychology program at Benedictine University. Liz has in-depth experience leading programs for adults with developmental, intellectual, and physical disabilities, and she is passionate about empowering those around her. At Authentic Growth Wellness Group, Liz offers assistance in many areas, such as issues surrounding adoption and being an adoptive child, struggles with infertility, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, trauma, and grief and loss. As a published author, Liz is focusing her therapeutic technique around Narrative Therapy, a valuable coping strategy in alignment with each unique client’s needs and circumstances.