Exploring Identity in Young Adulthood

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Adolescence and young adulthood are times of growth and change. Young people are often trying new things, learning about the world around them, and experiencing changes in their own bodies and minds. 

Young adulthood is also a time of self-discovery. During their adolescent years, young people often explore questions of identity, such as gender identity, religion, culture, and sexuality. Young people start to build a picture of who they are, where they come from, what they want, and where they are heading. 

For some young adults, building their identities is a positive process. It can give young people a sense of purpose, stability, and resilience to understand who they are and what’s important to them. 

For others, identity exploration can be more difficult. In some cases, this happens when society rejects, questions, or discriminates against a young person’s identity, such as their gender or their sexuality. In other cases, young people can find it hard to develop a cohesive and stable sense of self and may struggle to have a clear sense of who they are. 

In recent years, researchers have looked into the link between identity and young people’s mental health. In this blog, we’ll outline the results of two important studies in the United States and Hong Kong and explore what they mean for the well-being of young people today. 

Personal Identity: Exploring the Theory

There are lots of different theories of personal identity. One of the most prominent is the work of Erikson (1950), whose ideas have provided the foundations for a lot of identity research over the past 70 years.

Erikson thought about identity in terms of ‘synthesis’ and ‘confusion’:

  • Synthesis is when a person has a sense of self-knowledge and their direction in life
  • Confusion is a feeling of being ‘mixed up’ without a clear sense of their place in life

Young people who experience identity synthesis tend to have a clear set of values and ideals, while those with identity confusion are unable to hold a stable sense of what they believe in. 

According to identity status theory (one of the most popular theories that have grown from Erikson’s original ideas), young adults explore different possible identities before committing to one or more of them. Research has found that young people who commit to certain identities following a time exploration tend to be better adjusted and self-directed than others.

Identity Synthesis, Confusion, and Mental Health

In 2015, Schwartz et al. published a paper that looked into the links between young adults’ sense of identity and their mental health. The study interviewed almost 1000 students in US universities between the ages of 18 and 29. 

Using a variety of questions, the researchers assessed each young person’s levels of identity synthesis and identity confusion. They then measured different aspects of their mental health, including:

  • well-being, such as self-esteem and life satisfaction
  • symptoms of anxiety and depression
  • behavioural problems like rule-breaking and social and physical aggression
  • risky behaviours like dangerous drug and alcohol use, unsafe sex, and impaired driving

Identity and Well-Being

The researchers found that young adults with synthesised identities and low levels of identity confusion had the highest levels of well-being, including subjective well-being and self-esteem. On the other hand, young people who had high levels of identity confusion tended to struggle with all different measures of well-being. 

Mental Health Symptoms and Behavioural Problems

Synthesised identities were least likely to experience mental health symptoms (like anxiety or depression) or take part in rule-breaking and aggressive behaviours. In particular, young people with a stable sense of who they are and their direction tended to have very low levels of social anxiety.

On the other hand, young people who experienced both self-knowledge and confusion as to their identity had the most difficulties with their internal experiences and external behaviours. Young adulthood is a time that requires developing a clear sense of self: when young people continue to struggle to develop stable values and a clear sense of direction, they may turn to risky or aggressive behaviours to try and avoid confronting the issue. They may also struggle with their own mental health as a result.

Risky Behaviours

Young people with synthesised identities were least likely to engage in behaviours that could harm their health, such as illicit drug use or unsafe sexual behaviours. Once again, students with high levels of both synthesis and confusion struggled the most and were most likely to act dangerously.

Identity Confusion and Mental Health Support

There are several reasons why young people who are confused about their identities may be more likely to live with mental health concerns and take part in dangerous activities. In a society that emphasises individual development, careers, and future planning, difficulties understanding one’s place in life can be a source of emotional distress.

Young people may resort to risky behaviours to avoid confronting the issues they are facing or to try and delay the transition into adulthood. Identity confusion may also make young people more interested in present experiences than in planning for the future.

The above study found that a certain group of people – those who experienced both a synthesised sense of identity and identity confusion – were most at risk of maladaptive behaviours. The authors note that this group (with a mix of synthesis and confusion) had not been identified in previous research.

However, they found that the risks they faced were significantly higher than any other group, suggesting that they may be most in need of counselling or other therapeutic interventions. More research is needed to understand the experience of these young people and identify those who require help and support.

Cultural Identity and Mental Health in Hong Kong

In 2023, Qiaobing Wu and Ying Ou published a paper exploring the relationship between mental health and cultural identity among adolescents in Hong Kong. Similarly to the previous study, they found a significant relationship between clear cultural identity and several indicators of mental health.

In Hong Kong, young people may identify as part of the local Hong Kong people, mainland China, or both identities. Other young people feel confused about which group they belong to. The study found that adolescents with a clear cultural identity had higher levels of self-esteem, mental well-being, and happiness than those who were confused about which culture they were part of.

Cultural identity often plays a big role in shaping a young person’s conception of who they are, how they see the world, and how they fit into it. A young person’s cultural identity isn’t fixed and it can change over time. Young people may identify more or less strongly with aspects of their cultural identity at different times in their life.

When young people identify with more than one culture, it can bring many positives. It may help them to see things from different perspectives and feel like they belong to a community. However, identifying with more than one culture – or being unsure which culture to identify with – can be difficult too. Young people might feel like they have to choose one culture over another or that their beliefs and values from different cultures conflict with each other.

For young people who belong to a mixed cultural background or are confused about their identity, it can help to explore different parts of their identity, by speaking to others that share that culture or finding media, films, and art that resonate with their experiences.

If young people are struggling to cope with their mental health, it’s important that they reach out for help and access the support that they deserve. This might involve speaking with a doctor or contacting another mental health professional.

The Wave Clinic: Specialist Recovery Journeys for Young People

The Wave Clinic offers specialist mental health treatment for teenagers and adolescents, supporting them to plan and build fulfilling futures. We give young people the tools they need to connect with themselves, discover their passions, and find their place in life. Our programs provide opportunities to explore different life paths and build a future where they can be their true selves.

The Wave is the only centre that combines exceptional psychiatric and medical care with education, global citizenship, and unforgettable experiences. We set the standard for adolescent mental healthcare worldwide, making a difference in the lives of young people. Our programs are built upon values of inclusivity, acceptance, and fairness, offering additional support to neurodiverse young people.

If you’re interested in our programs and want to find out more, reach out to us today. We’re ready to answer any questions you may have and navigate the next steps.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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