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From new relationships to new jobs, young adulthood is a time of transitions. And, as it turns out, that may mean young adulthood is also a time when people are uniquely at risk for developing mental health conditions.

To learn more about what the life transitions of emerging adulthood mean for mental health, researchers from University of Arizona tracked 210 adults between the ages of 18 and 25 for a year. In their study, they surveyed the young adults about recent life transitions as well as feelings of psychological distress.

The types of transitions the researchers were interested involved areas of life such as work, school, residence and relationships. The swath of mental health symptoms the researchers looked at was similarly wide-ranging, including stress, loneliness and problem drinking.

When they analyzed all the data they collected, the researchers found that no matter how they looked at it, there was a real statistical connection between transitional instability – that is, how many of these transitions young adults experienced – and psychological distress. Specifically, those undergoing more transitions tended to subsequently experience more distress.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that life transitions are inherently bad. After all, they’re a natural part of young adulthood, and they’re often for the better. But it does mean that transitions can play a role in precipitating mental health conditions, and that it’s important to be aware that these transitions can make young adults’ mental health more vulnerable.

That said, there is some research to suggest that the transitions of young adulthood can have positive effects on mental health too. In particular, another study published this year came back with a result that the researchers called “unexpected”: it found that experiencing more transitional instability tended to subsequently lower young adults’ risk for problem drinking.

Taken together, these studies indicate that the transitions of young adulthood can have complex psychological effects, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. In general, major life transitions can pose a risk to young adults’ mental health. But it appears they can also have the opposite effect, and there’s a lot more work to be done before researchers have a good grasp on when transitional instability is psychologically helpful and when it’s harmful for young adults.

Image: Flickr/Will Folsom