Even before the events of 2020, anxiety and depression were already on the rise here in the United States, and they’ve only worsened in recent months. That’s why we need to attract more young people to mental health professions, especially psychology.
Especially among young adults, anxiety, depression, sleep disruptions, and thoughts of suicide have increased substantially over the past year, which can be attributed to a number of pandemic-related factors – colleges and universities eliminating in-person instruction, the transition to remote work, and, for some, the loss of income or employment. The need to keep our distance from others (for our own safety and theirs), combined with other hardships, has been taxing and has contributed to mental health problems even among those who’ve never before had issues. A recent report from Harvard found that 36% of Americans say they’re experiencing “serious loneliness” during the pandemic, but at least 61% of young adults are feeling this way. And an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation released last month showed that 40% of 18- to 24-year-olds are now reporting symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder.
Even if we could fully reopen society tomorrow, the consequences of more than 12 months in near isolation wouldn’t disappear overnight. Our “new normal” will include new and exacerbated psychiatric illness among large swaths of the population for many years to come, which will lead to an increased demand for skilled psychologists who can help us better understand our thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behaviors for better mental health.
During the 25 years I’ve been teaching psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University, I’ve witnessed countless psychology majors prepare to graduate and make the transition from consumers of mental healthcare services to providers of it. Applying these skills in service to others can create a feeling of efficacy, confidence, and social connection. Psychology majors, particularly those who continue their education with a postgraduate degree, have keen insights into our inner worlds, making them especially marketable following a global pandemic.
According to a trends report by the American Psychological Association (APA), majoring in psychology allows students to develop a range of skills that are essential in the face of instability. The APA found that psychology degree holders work in 61 different occupational categories, ranging from psychotherapist to psychology teacher, and more. An education in psychology also teaches communication, management, and leadership, which are all among hiring managers’ most sought-after skills in prospective employees. Alongside problem-solving, teamwork, and critical thinking, these “resilient skills” appeared in 84% of job ads in the early phases of the pandemic, according to a recent labor analytics report.
The pandemic has not only increased demand for mental health services, it’s also pushed innovations in the ways these services are delivered. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration saw an increase in online inquiries of more than 1,000%, compared with the same period in 2019. Digital mental health services have reported usage spikes as well. Psychologists are scrambling to provide adequate telehealth services to meet the increased demand.
And the need for mental health professionals was already steadily increasing before the pandemic stopped the world in its tracks. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s 2018 projections in the Occupational Outlook Handbook, the demand for psychologists overall will grow at a rate of 14% through the year 2028. There is every reason to believe this percentage will climb even higher.
For young people, majoring in and pursuing a career in psychology can be the start of a lifelong commitment to personal and professional development that will provide exciting challenges while giving back to others. That’s a win for us all.
Tara Well, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University, where she researches personality, motivation, and meditation.