This study examined the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young adults’ mental well-being and explored potential disparities between ethnic minority and majority groups. Drawing on a large representative sample of young adults in Germany, we asked whether minorities fared worse than the majority during the early stage of the pandemic. Furthermore, we investigated whether minorities experienced greater exposure to pandemic-related stressors, and if greater exposure made young adults from the minority population more vulnerable to declines in mental well-being than young adults from the majority population.
Using three waves of data, we found that overall, young adults’ mental well-being had improved at the early stage of the pandemic compared to 2 years earlier. Although life satisfaction remained stable, psychosomatic complaints, anxiety and depression had decreased. Furthermore, these improvements in mental well-being at the pandemic assessment followed a trend of worsening anxiety, depression, and life satisfaction prior to the pandemic. These findings challenge previous reports of greater mental health problems [4, 20, 30] and declines in mental well-being among young adults (e.g., [13, 17, 37]) early in the pandemic. By using longitudinal data with two pre-pandemic waves from a representative sample of young adults, we were able to illustrate that despite the disruptions brought about by the pandemic, our sample of ~ 25-year-olds experienced worse mental well-being (on average) before the onset of the pandemic. Such patterns might be masked in studies using nonrepresentative samples, cross-sectional designs or longitudinal designs with only one pre-pandemic wave.
Our findings also revealed few ethnic group differences in changes in mental well-being among young adults prior to and during the pandemic, which is consistent with longitudinal studies of older adults (e.g., [5, 45]). Although some disadvantages were found for young adults with origins in Asia, Turkey, the Middle East and Africa, there was no evidence of stronger declines in mental well-being among ethnic minorities at the early stage of the pandemic. Instead, there was evidence of weaker improvements in some aspects of mental well-being among these ethnic minority groups. A cross-sectional analysis of our data might have concluded that Turkish, Middle Eastern and African minorities had worse anxiety and life satisfaction than the German majority at the early stage of the pandemic. However, our methodological approach allowed us to clarify that anxiety among these minorities had improved (on average) between pre-pandemic and pandemic assessments, albeit to a lesser extent than for the German majority, and that a lower rate of life satisfaction among Turkish, Middle Eastern and African minorities already existed before the pandemic.
While the findings suggest that changes in psychosomatic complaints and depression at the pandemic assessment were less positive for respondents of Asian descent compared to the German majority, similar disadvantages were also observed in changes prior to the pandemic. Thus, by examining two waves of pre-pandemic data, we can infer that these disparities in changes at the early stage of the pandemic are unlikely to have resulted solely from the pandemic. It is noteworthy that the mental well-being, particularly psychosomatic complaints, of Asian respondents seemed to follow a less positive trajectory from adolescence than other groups. Although the estimates for the Asian minorities did not reach statistical significance, this was likely due to power limitations from the small size of this group. As this pattern deserves further attention, future research should test if these patterns replicate with a larger sample of Asian minorities. If disadvantages are found, perhaps group differences can be explained by variation in cultural norms or pressures regarding life transitions during young adulthood, such as living arrangements, completing higher education or entering the labour market.
Despite finding that young adults generally had better mental well-being at the early stage of the pandemic than two years prior, respondents with greater exposure to pandemic-related stressors were less likely to experience positive changes in well-being. Overall, young adults who reported greater contact with COVID-19, financial worries and health worries experienced increased anxiety and depression. Furthermore, increased discrimination and financial worries were associated with increased depression and decreased life satisfaction, respectively. The current findings thus support earlier cross-sectional studies indicating that worries, discrimination and contact with COVID-19 are related to poorer mental well-being during the pandemic (Cao et al., 2020; [28, 29, 40]). We also extend previous cross-sectional findings by identifying how each stressor related to declines in specific aspects of mental well-being. Anxiety and depressive symptoms, for example, were associated with a larger number of pandemic-related stressors than psychosomatic complaints and life satisfaction. The latter two aspects of mental well-being may be more resilient to transient or new challenges than anxiety and depression. Data that tracks young adults across the pandemic’s duration could clarify if increased health worries or discrimination that are sustained over a longer period negatively impact psychosomatic complaints or life satisfaction.
We found that overall, minority groups had greater exposure to pandemic-related stressors than the majority population. However, exposure varied between the minority groups and the results indicate that certain minorities in Germany are more vulnerable than others. Respondents with origins in Asia, Turkey, the Middle East and Africa reported a greater increase in discrimination and health worries, while those with backgrounds in other European countries and the Americas reported greater financial worries. Moreover, the mediation analysis showed that an increase in health worries among young adults with origins in Asia, Turkey, the Middle East and Africa contributed to increases in anxiety and depression among these groups at the pandemic assessment. Furthermore, a greater increase in discrimination among young adults of Asian descent also contributed to increases in depression among this group. Thus, although we identified few ethnic group differences in how mental well-being changed overall, greater exposure to pandemic-related stressors rendered Asian, Turkish, Middle Eastern and African minorities more vulnerable to less positive changes in mental well-being at the early stage of the pandemic.
Compared to young adults with origins in Europe, the Americas, or the former Soviet Union, those from Asia, Turkey, the Middle East and Africa experienced more ethnic discrimination. The high probability of Asian minorities to have experienced increased discrimination at the early stage of the pandemic was striking, as was the considerably high likelihood of ongoing discrimination among Turkish, Middle Eastern and African minorities. These findings demonstrate the longstanding problem of racism in society that these young adults are subjected to, and that the pandemic brought about amplified experiences of discrimination among Asian minorities. Although a large proportion from the ethnic majority reported some level of discrimination, this is not a new finding and is consistent with previous research [2, 33].
The unexpected finding of less contact with COVID-19 among the former Soviet Union, Central and Eastern Europe and Turkish, Middle Eastern and African minorities needs further investigation. If these groups had poorer access to healthcare services that provided testing or contact tracing than the German majority, perhaps their awareness of contact with COVID-19 may have been lower, despite rates of infection being higher among disadvantaged minority groups. However, the elevated health worries among Turkish, Middle Eastern and African minorities might be attributed to news and social media coverage describing higher infection rates among disadvantaged ethnic/racial and immigrant groups. As Asian minorities in Germany are not typically socioeconomically disadvantaged, we speculate that their higher health worries stem from closer psychological or social connections to the world region where COVID-19 or possibly even the previous SARS outbreak began.
Key strengths of the current study include the large and nationally representative sample, and the use of longitudinal survey data covering the early stage of the pandemic and two pre-pandemic assessments. These advantages permitted analyses of within-person changes to provide a more accurate indication than is otherwise currently available on how ethnic minority and majority young adults’ mental well-being may have been impacted at the early stage of the pandemic. In addition, the consideration of multiple pandemic-related stressors and aspects of mental well-being enabled a comprehensive examination of potential disparities between ethnic minorities and the majority.
Despite these strengths, the following limitations must be acknowledged. First, as information on respondents’ mental well-being directly before the pandemic was not available, we cannot draw conclusions about more immediate changes. Given that our most recent pre-pandemic assessment was approximately 2 years prior to the pandemic, the exact timing for changes in well-being is unclear. Studies using a shorter interval may find that young adults’ mental well-being did decrease after the onset of the pandemic. Nevertheless, the current findings present a unique developmental picture by showing how mental well-being had changed at the early stage of the pandemic, in the context of changes from adolescence and the years leading up to the pandemic.
In addition, mental well-being is often considered to be vulnerable as young adults attempt to negotiate various developmental milestones, such as self-identity achievement, completing education, gaining employment, moving out of home, and forming more serious romantic partnerships . As the mitigation measures may have temporarily delayed these transitions, future studies could examine if some young adults’ mental well-being improved due to (initially) reduced pressures to perform socially, academically, or career-wise. A notable degree of heterogeneity in changes existed (results not shown), thus individual differences in reactions to the pandemic are worth following up to further understanding of risk and resilience among young adults.
A second limitation is that our data do not allow us to track changes in mental well-being within the pandemic. The continuation and re-introduction of mitigation measures in Germany throughout the pandemic’s duration may have had detrimental effects on young adults’ mental well-being, particularly minorities’. Data with multiple pandemic waves is needed to test this possibility. Thirdly, we did not focus on pre-existing mental health problems, although these are a risk factor for declines in mental well-being during the pandemic (e.g., [26, 37]). Some young adults with mental health problems at earlier waves may have received treatment or been in contact with healthcare providers. To provide a deeper understanding of the pandemic’s impact on inequalities in mental well-being, future studies could examine changes in well-being specifically among ethnic minority and majority young adults with pre-existing mental health problems and what role health services played in supporting them during the pandemic. Finally, as this study is based on a German sample, generalisations to young adults in other countries may be limited. Cross-country comparisons are needed to examine what role country specific mitigation strategies in the context of different cultural, economic, technological, and social welfare factors (e.g., healthcare access, unemployment benefits) played in young adults’ initial experiences during the pandemic.