Young Adult Mental Health & Substance Abuse Treatment Centers

The Three Pillars of Mental Health for Young Adults

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A new study has identified the top three health behaviors that support emotional well-being in young adults. These pillars of mental health clearly illustrate the power of the mind-body connection, and offer a road map for how to stay healthy in your 20s, both mentally and physically.

Published in December 2020 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the study analyzed surveys taken by 1,111 young adults, ages 18–25, from the United States and New Zealand. The participants reported their daily activities and mood, and the research team then correlated the data to determine which behaviors were associated with well-being.

The findings show that young adults can take control of their mental health by making small yet powerful lifestyle changes.

What are the 3 Pillars of Mental Health?

These behaviors aren’t the only pillars of mental health. Researchers have identified other activities and qualities that help counteract mental health problems in young adults. For example, mental flexibility, mindfulness, and resilience are often cited as the three pillars of well-being. High levels of gratitude are a significant predictor of happiness, as are social connections.

However, what sets the new study apart is its focus on everyday self-care habits. Moreover, it contributes to our growing understanding of how biological mechanisms impact psychological states. In addition, it zeroes in on young adults.

This research is particularly meaningful in light of the fact that young adults are struggling right now. Social isolation and the other roadblocks thrown up by the pandemic disproportionately affect emerging adults, interrupting their process of establishing identity, community, and life purpose.

The First Pillar: Sleep Quality

The research team, led by Shay-Ruby Wickham, discovered that sleep quality—not quantity—was the most important of the three pillars of mental health. Sleep quality in young adults was assessed by surveying the participants about how refreshed they felt after waking up.

So how much sleep do young adults need? As long as it’s quality sleep, anywhere between eight and 12 hours is beneficial, the research showed.

Know the Facts

Young adults who slept 9.7 hours of sleep per night had the lowest levels of depressive symptoms, and those who slept 8 hours per night had the highest levels of flourishing.

To get better quality sleep, young adults can try the following:

  • Go to bed and get up at the same times each day, including weekends
  • Keep your room dark and cool
  • Stop using devices 30 minutes before bed
  • Avoid drinking coffee in the afternoon
  • Establish a relaxing bedtime routine.

The Second Pillar: Exercise

The second of the three pillars of mental health was exercise. The results confirmed previous studies showing that physical activity helps counteract mental health problems in young adults. Exercise for young adults promotes well-being by releasing endorphins, reducing cortisol (the stress hormone), and building self-esteem.

To establish an exercise routine,

  • Find an accountability partner to keep you on track
  • Exercise while listening to a podcast
  • Do five or 10 minutes of physical activity several times throughout the day
  • Find an activity you really enjoy doing.

The Third Pillar: Healthy Diet

The survey asked participants how much of the following they consumed weekly: raw fruit, raw vegetables, processed fruit or vegetables (cooked, frozen, or canned), fast food, sweets, and soda. Flourishing levels were highest for young adults who ate 4.8 servings of fruits and veggies daily—making it one of the top foods to eat every day. That’s because fresh produce contains nutrients that support brain function and healthy serotonin levels.

Here’s how young adults can eat more raw fruits and veggies:

  • Instead of chips, snack on grapes or cut-up carrots
  • Dip veggies in hummus or peanut butter
  • Add raw veggies to cooked grains or pasta
  • Make fruit or vegetable smoothies.

Incorporating the Pillars of Mental Health in Young Adult Treatment

In summary, the most effective mental health help for young adults encompasses the three pillars of well-being: sleep, exercise, and nutrition. These three pillars of mental health are woven into Newport Institute’s integrative approach to healing, and tailored for each client’s needs. To find out more about our model of care and our customized treatment plans for young adults, contact us today.


Front Psychol. 2020 Dec;11:10.3389.

J Pos Psych. 2018 Jan;14(2).

Am J Lifestyle Med. 2017 Nov-Dec; 11(6): 466–475.

Mental Health / January 14, 2021

Newport Institute

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