13 May 2022

The Gen Z Mental Health wave - what is causing the surge?

Written by Chloe Garnham

Content warning

Please note this article references potential trauma triggers, including depression, anxiety, and suicide. If you are in distress and need immediate help, trained counselors are available to take your call. Please find a crisis hotline in your country here


Anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses worldwide. In the US alone, anxiety affects 40 million adults a year.¹

Generation Z (Gen Z) is currently between 10 and 25 years old, born between 1997 and 2012, and research suggests that they are the most anxious generation to date. For Gen Zers, anxiety is fueled not only by the pandemic but also by unemployment, climate change, technology, and other stressors.

Some research suggests that Gen Z are comparatively more likely to seek mental health help than other generations. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes that Gen Z is the least likely to self-rate their mental health as being “very good” or “excellent.” However, compared to other generations, they are also the most likely to have help from a psychologist or mental health professional.² In contrast, consumer surveys and interviews conducted by McKinsey report that “Gen Z respondents were more likely to report having a behavioral-health diagnosis but less likely to report seeking treatment compared with other generations.”³ Although clinical and consumer surveys differ in methodology, these opposite findings suggest that continued study of mental health factors (and barriers to treatment) for Gen Zers is crucial.

A systematic review 2020 of depression and anxiety disorders in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic found that global anxiety disorder rates spiked by 25%. For young people, the issue of the pandemic's effect on mental health was found to be even more significant. However, the same review also notes that “meeting the added demand for mental health services due to COVID-19 will be difficult, but not impossible.”⁴ Here’s what else research and surveys reveal about Gen Z so far, along with ideas for supporting your mental health at any age.

Overview of generations by name and year

When figuring out who belongs to which generation, it’s essential to understand that no particular group or organization is responsible for naming American generations. These labels come about gradually in media and popular vernacular.

While it might sound a bit arbitrary, generation names are undeniably helpful for researchers striving to identify trends, habits, viewpoints, and social factors among people born at the same time—peers, or clinically speaking, members of the same cohort. It can get a bit confusing with seven generations living on the planet.  Here’s a quick guide to the co-existing generations—their monikers, birth year ranges, and how old they are now.⁵

Characteristics of Gen Z

Using technology is a natural part of life for Gen Zers—sometimes described as digital natives because they have grown up entirely in a digital, smartphone-using era.⁶

Pew Research findings suggest that Gen Z differs from previous generations in a few characteristic ways.

Surveys results indicate that Gen Z are more likely to:

  • Report mental health concerns

  • Be aware of racial inequality

  • Be racially and ethnically diverse

  • Be the children of immigrants

  • Be socially progressive (comfortable using gender-neutral pronouns, support same-sex marriage) 

Compared to previous generations, Gen Z are also less likely to:

  • Be employed in their teens or as young adults

  • Emigrate

  • Drop out of high school (and more likely to be enrolled in college)

Statistics

Research also indicates that Gen Zers are currently the most stressed demographic of people. 

The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that:

  • 90% of Gen Z experienced psychological or physical symptoms as a result of stress in the last year.²

  • 70% of Gen Z say that anxiety and depression are significant problems among their peers.²

  • 30% of parents surveyed felt that their child was experiencing negative effects on their emotional or mental health due to social distancing and school closures.⁷

Additionally, McKinsey Insights notes that 25% of Gen Z report experiencing emotional distress—nearly double the levels reported by older generations.³

Dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, those between 20–24 years old showed the biggest leaps in anxiety.⁸

The pandemic and the youth mental health crisis

The pandemic has worsened mental health issues for all generations, but particularly for Gen Z.

In 2021, Dr. Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General, issued a public health advisory addressing what he termed the “youth mental health crisis” heightened by the pandemic.⁹

“We can and must protect and promote youth mental health. Mental health is an essential part of overall health, affecting how children, adolescents, and young adults feel about themselves and the world,” urged Dr. Murthy.

The pandemic has also worsened stress for those identifying as LGBTQ+

  • 65% of transgender and nonbinary youth found that the pandemic impacted their ability to express their sexual identity¹⁰

  • 81% of LGBTQ+ youth found that their living situation became more stressful

Research indicates that Gen Zers also may be at risk of being two to three times more likely to think about, plan, or attempt suicide.³

Still, these issues were already widespread before the COVID-19 pandemic. Research from the University College of London before March 2020 found that Gen Zers are more likely to have depression, and low body image and are even more likely to self-harm.¹¹

Gen Zers turning to TikTok for advice

There are many reasons why Gen Zers turn to platforms like TikTok for mental health resources over traditional healthcare.³ Some of these factors include:

  • Affordability 

  • Lack of social stigma 

  • Access and comfort with using technology

In many areas of the US, a significant barrier to care is the overall shortage of mental health providers. 64% of states are experiencing a shortage of mental health staff, including counselors.¹²

While social media can be a powerful tool for peer support and destigmatizing mental health issues, it’s not yet clear how to balance its perceived benefits with risks like:

  • Being exposed to misinformation

  • Taking advice from people who are unqualified

  • Increasing anxiety and depressive symptoms with excessive screen time

A team of behavioral science experts recently published an article on this very subject, noting “It will be essential for researchers to work closely with clinicians and with those affected by mental illness to ensure that possible benefits of using social media are carefully weighed against anticipated risks.”¹³

Anxiety causes: online time, finances, current events, climate change

A highly connected world, climate change, a global pandemic that’s impacting job security, and financial debt are some main causes of increased anxiety, stress, and depression among Gen Zers. 

Gen Z is online 10 hours per day

Unlike previous generations, Gen Z has little to no memory of a world without the internet, smartphones, and social media. Technology is a substantial part of their life. 

One survey found that almost half of Gen Z spend 10 hours or more online per day, which limits the amount of in-person contact with others and can create feelings of isolation and loneliness.²

Being continually connected can also result in self-esteem issues and feeling pressure to conform. Especially for young women, photo-based platforms like Instagram are linked to worsening body image issues which affected one-third of those studied.¹⁴ Gen Z also favors image and video-based platforms more than older generations— gravitating to TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat.

Exposure to cyberbullying or content that features self-harm, harassment, and undereating can also be harmful to mental health. 

The pandemic and unemployment

Unemployment caused by the pandemic is also a key stressor for young people today. In the US, a study found that 59% of young adults had experienced unemployment either directly, or within their household since the onset of the pandemic.¹⁵ The study also found a link between employment loss and poorer mental health. 

Uncertainty about the future

As a group, Gen Z is more concerned about climate change and social issues than any previous generation. With greater awareness of climate change being raised members of Gen Z are experiencing anxiety about planetary health. 

One study found that 64% of 18-22-year-olds think it’s important for employers to act on environmental issues.¹⁶ Some young workers are willing to leave jobs based on climate change values.¹⁷

Stressful current events

Traumatic events such as school shootings, immigrant families being separated, and sexual assaults are also self-reported causes of anxiety among members of Gen Z.¹⁸

Five ways to improve mental health at any age

To receive qualified, personalized care, it’s important to speak with a doctor, psychologist, or counselor. If the right person isn’t available in your area, telehealth options are becoming increasingly available.

Treatments for anxiety and depression can include both psychological and medical treatment. Therapeutic treatments for anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders often include: 

Meditation

Many studies show that meditation can help ease psychological stress and improve well-being.¹⁹

Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital says that meditation can be very helpful for treating anxiety.

“People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” she said. “They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit.”

Meditation can train you to understand and differentiate between helpful and unhelpful thoughts. A quick online search for guided meditation or mindfulness apps should turn up dozens of results, with both free and paid options available.

Breathwork

When suffering from anxiety, people tend to take shallow breaths, putting the body into fight-or-flight mode. 

Breathwork has the power to bring a person back to the present moment, stop negative thinking, and provide an anchor for awareness. 

Diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing) can help calm the nervous system.²⁰ Relaxing the diaphragm (which happens when you breathe into your abdomen as opposed to your chest) signals to the body that you are safe and there is no current danger. 

Slow, steady breathing might be the best for some, while using patterns like square breathing—which requires breathing in for four counts, holding for four counts, breathing out for four counts, and holding for four counts—can be helpful for others. 

Regular exercise

Physical exercise is helpful for your entire well-being, but getting active for mental health might be more powerful than you realize. Studies have found a link between just a single session of exercise and improved mood and a reduction of anxiety and depression.²¹

Exercise helps release endorphins—mood-boosting chemicals and increases blood circulation in the brain, which can improve your reaction to stress.²¹ The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests striving for at least 150 minutes a week of brisk walking, and two days a week of activities that help strengthen muscles.²² These are simply recommended guidelines. It’s valuable to start anywhere and be as active as you’re able.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT is carried out by a trained psychologist who understands a person’s individual needs and identifies patterns of behaviors that may be affecting their mental health.²³ After uncovering unhelpful behaviors, it’s then possible to make changes to thoughts and feelings and improve coping skills. 

CBT can include:

  • Learning how to let go of worries 

  • Relaxation techniques, including breathwork 

  • Strategies to recognize and change unproductive behaviors

Medication

In some individuals with anxiety and depression antidepressant medication is helpful and may often be necessary. Taking medication has risks and benefits that should be discussed in detail with your doctor. 

The lowdown

Gen Z is experiencing an unprecedented combination of stressors impacting their mental health. If you’re experiencing anxiety, depression, or any other struggles with your well-being, it’s essential to reach out for help. 

Symptoms can improve, and treatment options are continually evolving. Whenever possible, connect with a qualified healthcare professional, such as your family doctor, a psychologist, or a registered counselor. In a crisis, there are 24-hour help hotlines attended by trained counselors ready to listen and talk with you.

The information provided is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient/site visitor and their existing health care professional(s).

Have feedback? Email content@healthmatch.io.

Sources:
  1. Facts & statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America

  2. Stress in America™ generation Z | American Psychological Association

  3. Addressing the unprecedented behavioral-health challenges facing generation Z | McKinsey & Company

  4. Global prevalence and burden of depressive and anxiety disorders in 204 countries and territories in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic | The Lancet

  5. Age range by generation | Beresford Research

  6. On the cusp of adulthood and facing an uncertain future: What we know about Gen Z so far | Pew Research Center

  7. US parents say COVID-19 harming child's mental health | Gallup

  8. The implications of COVID-19 for mental health and substance use | KFF

  9. Youth mental health reports and publications | U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

  10. The Trevor project national survey results 2021 | The Trevor Project

  11. High levels of serious mental health difficulties among 17-year-olds | UCL News

  12. Telehealth: A quarter-trillion-dollar post-COVID-19 reality? | McKinsey & Company

  13. Social media and mental health: Benefits, risks, and opportunities for research and practice (2020)

  14. How using social media affects teenagers | Child Mind Institute

  15. Job insecurity and symptoms of anxiety and depression among US young adults during COVID-19 (2021)

  16. Gen Z seek ethical workplaces as environ-mental health burden bites | Bupa

  17. Corporate ESG: Gen Z workers willing to reject jobs based on climate change values | The Australian Financial Review

  18. Gen Z more likely to report mental health concerns | American Psychological Association

  19. Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis (2014)

  20. This is why deep breathing makes you feel so chill | Right as Rain by UW Medicine

  21. [Effects of exercise on anxiety, depression and mood] (2004)

  22. Physical activity recommendations for different age groups | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  23. Psychological treatments for anxiety | Beyond Blue

Chloe Garnham is a writer exploring a broad range of topics, including healthcare, education, and technology.

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