Mental Health: Failure to launch syndrome: The mental health of emerging adults

Unemployment and financial dependency influence the mental health of emerging adult

Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a meaningful contribution to their community.

Mental health is a critical component of individual, family, community and national wellbeing and prosperity.

The transition from late adolescence to full adulthood (ages 19 to 30) have been described as a phase of emerging adulthood.

This period of change can result in challenges with mental wellbeing, difficulties transitioning into adulthood, getting stuck in dependency on parents and caregivers and failing to launch into adulthood and thrive.

What factors influence the mental health of emerging adults?

As we transition from adolescence into adulthood, from being dependent to being independent, from having few, if any, responsibilities to taking on significant responsibility for oneself and for others, we will face challenges that may influence our mental wellbeing.

These include:

  1. Completing education and the challenges of becoming gainfully employed
  2. Unemployment and financial dependency
  3. Moving away from home and from under the supervision of parents and family
  4. Figuring out who you are and understanding yourself
  5. Developing meaningful relationships, getting married and starting a family
  6. Learning to make independent decisions and redefining your relationship with significant authorities like parents
  7. Extension of the period of dependency due to being in tertiary education well into adulthood

 ‘Failure to launch syndrome’ and other mental health challenges of emerging adults

Emerging adults may struggle to transition effectively into adulthood and may even develop mental health challenges that will make it difficult to become independent, able to take care of themselves and others.

A young adult who is:

- failing to complete expected education levels or to proceed with their education even though they have the capacity to do so and opportunity to do so

- or struggling to form meaningful relationships beyond their family and to progress to start their own family

- or if they cannot or will not take on increasing levels of responsibilities even when they have the capacity to do so

- or remain emotionally and financially dependent on their parents or caregivers may be struggling with ‘failure to launch’ syndrome.

While this is not an officially recognised mental health disorder, this stalling in the developmental process of becoming a full adult can be debilitating and frustrating to the young person affected and to their family.

This failed transition has been described in some cultures as ‘Peter Pan’ syndrome depicting young people who remain in a child-like, emotionally immature state and among the Japanese as ‘Hikikomori’ describing young people who retreat away from society choosing to stay at home with their parents and relying on them for longer than expected.

‘Failure to launch’ can result from:

  1. Fear of failure
  2. Perfectionism and ‘paralysis by analysis’
  3. Personality factors particularly introversion
  4. Economic and financial challenges
  5. Overbearing, ‘helicopter’ parents and caregivers
  6. Demotivation, loss of drive, helplessness and hopelessness
  7. Undiagnosed or poorly managed mental health challenges like severe anxiety; major depressive disorder; early stages of a psychotic illness; alcohol and substance use problems particularly cannabis which can cause an ‘Amotivation Syndrome’

How can we support the mental health of emerging adults better and prevent ‘failure to launch’ syndrome?

It may be possible to prevent or mitigate against the effects of failure to launch by:

  1. Including mental resilience training and life skills training in education programs
  2. Supporting youths to become gainfully employed
  3. Coaching parents on how to parent a young adult and help them transition effectively into adulthood
  4. Improving mental health literacy among young people to encourage early diagnosis of mental health conditions that can make it difficult to thrive and launch into one’s life and destiny.

If you think that you or a young person that you know may be experiencing a mental health problem, please contact your nearest health care provider and get help.

*Chido Rwafa-Madzvamutse is a consultant psychiatrist. Feedback:  WhatsApp: +263777727332

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