Clinician interview: Counseling Young Adults

October 30, 2023

Interviewer: Dr. Vassilia Binensztok

Interviewee: Kathryn Smith, MS

Dr. Vassilia Binensztok: What are the biggest challenges young adults are facing today?

Kathryn Smith, MS: I think that one of the biggest challenges is navigating the conflict between performance and authenticity in the age of social media. Rather than developing their own genuine voice, image, and interests, young adults are encouraged to cater to others’ expectations based on online personas. Performative pressures can lead to a continual state of self-consciousness that feeds anxiety, lowers self-esteem, and fosters feelings of loneliness.

Another major challenge is developing professional identity. Not only is the economy and job market incredibly uncertain, but expectations for career are often misaligned with reality. Generally speaking, people no longer “choose” a career and work in that function or industry for the next 30+ years. Today, the average person will hold 12 jobs in their lifetime. Many institutions no longer provide traditional structure; “career ladders” have disappeared and jobs themselves have dissolved into “project work.” Navigating career decisions as a young adult can be incredibly stressful.

Of course, young adults are experiencing so many other additional stressors, but these are two that I reflect on daily in my work with clients.

Dr. Vassilia Binensztok: I often hear the term “quarterlife crisis.” How would you define that?

Kathryn Smith, MS: I picked up the term “quarterlife” from psychotherapist Satya Doyle Byock, who conceptualizes this phase as roughly ages 18-40. (I recommend her book for anyone who is curious!) Like a midlife crisis or other significant shift, I think of a quarterlife crisis as a search for meaning and examination of identity. A quarterlife crisis can feel like being “stuck,” overwhelmed or disoriented. Many people are transitioning into new roles and their sense of self is confusing or incongruent with their values.

For folks who hit the “traditional”, culturally celebrated milestones (such as a graduation, marriage, getting a certain kind of job), a quarterlife crisis can look like, “Is this all there is?” or feelings of emptiness. For others who haven’t met these standards, a quarterlife crisis can look like anxiety about lack of accomplishment or stability.

Dr. Vassilia Binensztok: A lot of young people are feeling burnt out or discouraged because of inflation and the job market. Can you explain how this can affect their mental health?

Kathryn Smith, MS: This stress is REAL. Financial anxiety can result from very legitimate stressors such as increasing housing and living costs, student debt, and rising tuition. This stress inevitably affects other areas of wellness such as relationships and physical health. For instance, to maintain a certain level of income, you may need to work longer hours or multiple jobs. This necessary focus on financial security

sacrifices attention to other areas of health, such as exercising, socializing, and sleep. The ability to achieve goals such as buying a house or taking a vacation can feel unattainable. Of course so many people feel burnt out.

Many people also gain a sense of worthiness or “enoughness” from their job. Being un/underemployed or underpaid can significantly impact your sense of identity, confidence, and self-esteem.

Dr. Vassilia Binensztok: What are three practical tips that young adults can use to manage their stress?

Kathryn Smith, MS: Journal: Write. Put your thoughts and feelings down in on paper (or in your Notes app). I tell my clients that what you write in your journal does not have to be cohesive or make sense to anyone but you – it is the practice of reflection that matters. Journaling can help you notice patterns and what’s important to you.

Get outside: There is really interesting research on how being outdoors can benefit our mental health and lower our stress levels. What better place to get outside than south Florida?! But you don’t have to live by the beach to reap nature’s psychological benefits. Give your eyes a break from your screens and focus on looking at something green or take a walk around your block.

Seek support: If you are experiencing stress or anxiety due to the challenges of quarterlife, you are not alone! If you are struggling, ask for help. I’m (obviously) pro-therapy and encourage folks to seek professional support, or to reach out to trusted friends or family.

Dr. Vassilia Binensztok: What is your background and how do you approach working with young adults?

Kathryn Smith, MS: I started my career in the corporate world working in consulting and finance. I experienced my own “quarterlife crisis” that inspired me to pursue a longtime dream of becoming a professional counselor. I left the banking industry to work at my alma mater, the University of Virginia, as a career coach for graduate business students. I later received my Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Northwestern University. I love working with quarterlifers and appreciate the many unique challenges that they face. My work integrates several theories including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and existential therapy (as well as humor!). My goal is to make my clients feel heard, valued, and supported.