Younger Generations are Grappling with More Severe Mental Health Issues and Emotional Distress than their Elders
The issue of mental health has always been a pressing concern for young people. Over the past 15 years, The American Psychological Association (APA) has been tracking stress in the United States, showing, year after year, that young adults report the highest levels of stress.
Every young American generation faced unique and formative environmental and societal stressors: the Great Depression for the Silent Generation, the fear and reality of being drafted into the military for Baby Boomers, the threat of nuclear war for Generation X, the devastating aftermath of 9/11 for Millennials.
Today, Generation Z teens and young adults, born between 1997 and 2013, have experienced multiple traumas in their short lives that have robbed them of a collective sense of security affecting their mental health. For example, they have been exposed to school/mass shootings, financial crises, spectacular technological advances, massive climate change, and societal unrest. At the same time, they have also been hit harder than their elders by the mental health effects of the global pandemic. They report a significant deterioration in their quality of life, increased perception of stress, loneliness, fatigue and depression. Finally, for these "digital natives", 54% of whom spend at least 4 hours a day on social media, the upheavals that the world has experienced in recent years can hardly be ignored.
Who belongs to Gen Z?
Generation Z, also known as ‘Zoomers,’ refers to youth currently between the ages of 10 and 25. It spans a wide age range: the oldest are early stage professionals with mortgages, while the youngest are middle school students. It is the second youngest generation, positioned between Millennials and Generation Alpha.
The first Zoomers were born when the internet was just starting to become mainstream. They are called "digital natives" because they were the first to use the internet in their daily lives. They are famous for working, shopping, dating and making friends online.
Globally, Gen Z is growing fast: Gen Zers will make up a quarter of the Asia–Pacific region by 2025. Of the more than 1.8 billion Zoomers worldwide, approximately 70-75 million reside in the United States, 82 million in Europe and 515 million in South Asia.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic impacted mental health?
During the pandemic, the prevalence of mental health issues soared across all age groups and socio-economic categories, leading to feelings of isolation, loneliness, fear and anxiety.
But those between the ages of 10 and 25 experienced the highest levels of emotional distress compared to all other age groups, according to NIH. For example, they were twice as likely to struggle with depression and hopelessness as Americans over the age of 25 (42% vs. 23%), and 3 times as likely to report that they were dealing with such severe hardship that they were thinking about self-harm or that they would be better off dead (18% vs. 5%). They often resorted to maladaptive behaviors, such as drug use, alcohol abuse, or self-harm, in an attempt to escape their emotional pain and feelings of helplessness.
The mental health situation of young people was so alarming that U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a public health advisory on December 7, 2021. He noted that while emotional distress predated the pandemic, the problem was exacerbated by it: “The pandemic added to the pre-existing challenges that America’s youth faced. It disrupted the lives of children and adolescents, such as in-person schooling, in-person social opportunities with peers and mentors, access to health care and social services, food, housing, and the health of their caregivers.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were already reporting a 60% increase in suicides among 10-25 year olds between 2007 and 2019. Of particular note, from 2019 to 2020, emergency room visits for suicide attempts jumped a dramatic 31%.
Technology: a blessing and a problem
As the first generation to grow up entirely in the digital age – where some held tablets before books – Zoomers perceive devices not as tools, but as part of their identity.
Overall, young people greatly lack the social skills that previous generations acquired through face-to-face interactions. In fact, they no longer spend as much time in outdoor leisure activities as their peers did in the past. As a result, many teens lost the ability to connect socially and find it difficult to build a support network. Typically, they form casual relationships online, at school or at work – shallow connections that bear little resemblance to real, lasting friendships. They also have trouble setting interpersonal boundaries, as the digital world they live in requires constant, 24/7 connections and interactions.
The psychological effects of social isolation associated with the use of electronic tools may be compounded by their physical consequences, including physical inactivity and sleep deprivation, which contribute to increased risk of depression in youth.
The challenges of Zoomers at work
Young adults ages 18-25 make up more than a quarter of the U.S. workforce and are one of the key drivers of change in today's workplace. They are often the trendsetters and trend-enders.
The McKinsey 2022 American Opportunity Survey (AOS) revealed a generational divide in the workplace – stark differences in how individuals view themselves, question the role of work in their overall identity, approach how to work effectively, and envision their future. More than 25% of 18-25 year olds admitted that their mental health problems significantly interfered with their ability to perform at work (compared to 14% of all workers). One of the most striking findings of the survey is that 55% of 18-25 year olds report having been diagnosed and/or treated for a mental illness.
While every generation may face anxiety and struggles to establish themselves economically as they enter the workforce, this generation joined the working world amidst a global pandemic, rising inflation, recession fears, geopolitical conflicts and global warming.
Those looking for jobs in the past few years have experienced something of a rollercoaster: youth unemployment reached an all-time high of 27.4 percent in April 2020, before stabilizing at 8 percent in August 2022.
Zoomers hold the solution to their problem
On the bright side, there is less harmful stigma attached to mental health issues among youth than among older adults, who are traditionally secretive about their mental health problems.
An estimated 63% of Zoomers feel comfortable talking about their mental health struggles on their social media profiles. Just open TikTok and search for a mental health-related keyword and you'll be inundated with videos. Zoomers are building an online mental health community that is more open and supportive than ever before. As more mental health information is made available to viewers, they become better equipped to spot signs and symptoms related to mental disorders, and are therefore more likely to seek help.
In an era of widespread access to virtual care, telehealth is useful in many ways. First, it allows for more affordable care, especially when cost is a major barrier for people of all ages, including Zoomers. Second, it provides care to people who live in "medical deserts," such as rural areas without direct access to care.
The statistics on mental health are alarming. The high rates of reported mental distress, coupled with perceived barriers to effective work and high levels of job insecurity, invite reflection.
But the numbers only tell part of the story – the innate qualities of Zoomers as reported in a Stanford University study, give cause for great optimism. Indeed, their pragmatic, self-reliant and highly collaborative approach to life suggests that many young people are not afraid to ask for help or offer support to others. For them, mental health is part of their vernacular.