Generation Z and Mental Health

Updated February 14, 2023 | Posted March 3, 2021
Mental health is a pressing issue for Generation Z

Mem­bers of Gen­er­a­tion Z — indi­vid­u­als born between 1997 and 2012 — are grow­ing up in an age of increased stress and anx­i­ety. Some 70% of teens across all gen­ders, races and fam­i­ly-income lev­els say that anx­i­ety and depres­sion are sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems among their peers, accord­ing to the Pew Research Cen­ter.

Gen­er­a­tion Z Bat­tles Anx­i­ety and Depression

Just 45% of Gen Zers report that their men­tal health is very good or excel­lent, accord­ing to the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion. All oth­er gen­er­a­tion groups fared bet­ter on this sta­tis­tic, includ­ing Mil­len­ni­als (56%), Gen Xers (51%) and Boomers (70%).

While Gen­er­a­tion Z has been called the most depressed gen­er­a­tion, mem­bers of this group are more like­ly than their old­er peers to seek out men­tal health coun­sel­ing or ther­a­py. Some 37% of Gen Zers — a high­er rate than any pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion — report hav­ing worked with a men­tal health pro­fes­sion­al. Still, access to care remains a prob­lem. In 2019, for exam­ple, only 43% of youth ages 12 to 19 with a major depres­sive episode received men­tal health treatment.

Why Is Gen­er­a­tion Z So Depressed?

Gen Z faces chron­ic stress from many fac­tors includ­ing school shoot­ings, stu­dent debt, job­less­ness and even politics. 

Tech­nol­o­gy plays a role, too. Grow­ing up in a hyper-con­nect­ed world can evoke intense feel­ings of iso­la­tion and lone­li­ness in some youth. It can also fuel a steady drum­beat of neg­a­tive news sto­ries, a fear of miss­ing out, and shame in falling short of a social media-wor­thy standard. 

Insta­gram, for instance, has been found to neg­a­tive­ly impact the men­tal health of teenagers, accord­ing to a Wall Street Jour­nal report. The pop­u­lar pho­to-based social media plat­form is par­tic­u­lar­ly hard on young women; it is cred­it­ed with wors­en­ing body image issues for 1 in every 3 teenage girls, the report says. 

Gen­er­a­tion Z and Suicide

The sui­cide rate for indi­vid­u­als of all ages in the Unit­ed States increased 30% from 2000 to 2016 and peaked for youth in 2017, accord­ing to a new study by the JAMA Net­work of med­ical jour­nals. Con­tribut­ing to the high youth depres­sion and sui­cide rates in Amer­i­ca are social media use and a greater will­ing­ness of fam­i­lies and offi­cials to acknowl­edge sui­cide as a cause of death, the JAMA study authors said.

Data shows that sui­cide rates vary across gen­ders, LGBTQ sta­tus and races or ethnicities.

Girls and young women are more like­ly to plan and attempt sui­cide, but males are more like­ly to die by sui­cide per the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behav­ior Sur­vey and Lead­ing Caus­es of Death. In 2020, for instance, males account­ed for 80% of sui­cides among youth ages 1524.

Amer­i­can Indi­an or Alas­ka Native youth ages 1524 have the high­est sui­cide rate com­pared to oth­er racial/​ethnic groups, and while rates are low­er for Black youth, lead­ers have been call­ing atten­tion to con­cern­ing increas­es for this group. In addi­tion, the lat­est data from the Youth Risk Behav­ior Sur­vey show that an alarm­ing 9% of U.S. high school­ers attempt­ed sui­cide in 2019; this fig­ure was even high­er for Black stu­dents (12%) and those of two or more races (13%), and it was near­ly three times high­er for Amer­i­can Indi­an or Alas­ka Native stu­dents (26%). Gen Zers of col­or are also more like­ly than their white peers to encounter issue-spe­cif­ic stress, such as fears tied to food inse­cu­ri­ty, hous­ing insta­bil­i­ty or debt.

Too many young peo­ple expe­ri­ence added stress due to dis­crim­i­na­tion based on race, eth­nic­i­ty, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­ti­ty. In 2020, 3.7 mil­lion kids ages 3 to 17 (5%) report­ed­ly had been treat­ed or judged unfair­ly based on their race or eth­nic­i­ty, and 649,000 (1%) based on their sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion or gen­der iden­ti­ty. Fur­ther, a 2022 nation­al sur­vey revealed that 36% of LGBTQ young peo­ple ages 13 to 24 have been phys­i­cal­ly threat­ened or hurt due to their sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion or gen­der identity.

Sui­cide attempts are trag­i­cal­ly high for gay, les­bian or bisex­u­al high school stu­dents, as well, at 23% in 2019, com­pared to 6% for het­ero­sex­u­al students.

The vast major­i­ty of LGBTQ youth say that they want men­tal health care, but most are not able to get it, accord­ing to the 2022 sur­vey not­ed above. The bar­ri­ers they list illus­trate that too many youth lack the sup­port they need, includ­ing fears of dis­cussing con­cerns (48%), get­ting per­mis­sion to access care (45%), not being tak­en seri­ous­ly (43%) and being mis­un­der­stood (26%). They also report­ed a lack of afford­able care (41%) and trans­porta­tion to care (21%), among oth­er issues.

For young peo­ple from his­tor­i­cal­ly under­rep­re­sent­ed com­mu­ni­ties, includ­ing Amer­i­can Indi­an and Alas­ka Native youth, draw­ing on cul­tur­al roots through evi­dence-based pro­grams offer the great­est oppor­tu­ni­ties for pre­vent­ing sui­cide. The U.S. Sur­geon General’s 2021 call to action to imple­ment the Nation­al Strat­e­gy for Sui­cide Pre­ven­tion also out­lines effec­tive strate­gies to address this crisis.

Explore data on teen deaths by acci­dent, homi­cide or sui­cide by state, as well as how to reduce the teen death rate.

Men­tal Health and Men­tal Health Care for Gen­er­a­tion Z Peo­ple of Color

In com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, men­tal ill­ness and men­tal health care is often stigmatized. 

Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin pro­fes­sor Melis­sa DuPont-Reyes sur­veyed 667 sixth-graders from an urban school sys­tem in Texas. She found that girls and white boys were more knowl­edge­able and pos­i­tive about men­tal ill­ness and care when com­pared to boys and youth of color.

Peo­ple of col­or are more like­ly to sup­press, down­play or ignore their emo­tions alto­geth­er, and youth of col­or are less like­ly to receive men­tal health care accord­ing to research. Men­tal ill­ness in these com­mu­ni­ties can incur a badge of shame, and — even when Black, Amer­i­can Indi­an and Lati­no youth opt to seek help — they may strug­gle to find a pro­fes­sion­al who under­stands their unique cul­tur­al back­grounds and con­cerns, or they may strug­gle due to lim­it­ed access to or afford­abil­i­ty of services.

A lack of men­tal health ser­vices for ado­les­cents in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or ele­vates their risk of devel­op­ing depres­sion. Racial and eth­nic dis­par­i­ties in health insur­ance cov­er­age plays a role, too, as more peo­ple of col­or lack the resources to get the help they need. 

COVID-19’s Effect on Gen­er­a­tion Z’s Men­tal Health

COVID-19 has had a sig­nif­i­cant impact — already — on Gen­er­a­tion Z. The pan­dem­ic has rad­i­cal­ly changed their edu­ca­tion­al and social expe­ri­ences. It shift­ed learn­ing online. Desta­bi­lized economies. Robbed young peo­ple of a par­ent or loved one. And prompt­ed some old­er sib­lings to jug­gle new roles as teach­ers and care­givers for their families.

Unsur­pris­ing­ly, men­tal health con­cerns have climbed dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. Across the world, rates of depres­sion and anx­i­ety rose by more than 25% in 2020, accord­ing to research pub­lished in the Lancet. Younger age groups saw greater increas­es than old­er groups, with 20- to 24-year-olds endur­ing the largest leaps of all. In the Unit­ed States, the rate of depres­sion climbed in 2021 to near­ly 33% — with 1 in every 3 Amer­i­cans age 18 or old­er affect­ed, per a study out of Boston Uni­ver­si­ty.

Gen Zers include chil­dren below age 18, too, and the Nation­al Sur­vey of Children’s Health found that the num­ber of kids ages 3 to 17 with anx­i­ety or depres­sion jumped by more than 1.5 mil­lion between 2016 and 2020, from 5.8 mil­lion to 7.3 mil­lion (or about 9% to 12%).

Read more about how the pan­dem­ic is dis­rupt­ing the lives of chil­dren and fam­i­lies.

How Employ­ment Stress Dur­ing COVID-19 Impact­ed Gen Z’s Men­tal Health

The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has spurred an eco­nom­ic cri­sis that is chang­ing the world of work for young people. 

One study, con­duct­ed with June 2020 data from the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau data, deter­mined that 59% of young adults ages 18 to 26 had expe­ri­enced direct or house­hold unem­ploy­ment since the start of the pan­dem­ic and 38% were antic­i­pat­ing such a loss in the next four weeks. The same study, pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Ado­les­cent Health, found that this impend­ing or actu­al employ­ment loss was asso­ci­at­ed with a greater risk of poor men­tal health. 

Many recent col­lege grad­u­ates are in sur­vival mode” after hav­ing their job offers rescind­ed or put on hold, reports CNBC. Enter­ing the job mar­ket dur­ing a pan­dem­ic — and at a time when unem­ploy­ment rates remain high — is even forc­ing some mem­bers of Gen­er­a­tion Z to look for jobs out­side of their envi­sioned career path.

How Edu­ca­tion Stress Dur­ing COVID-19 Impact­ed Gen Z’s Men­tal Health

Schools act as a safe­ty net for many young peo­ple and fam­i­lies. They offer engag­ing learn­ing envi­ron­ments but also con­sis­tent meals, med­ical screen­ings and sup­port ser­vices. In some areas, schools are the only source of men­tal health ser­vices for young peo­ple — par­tic­u­lar­ly for indi­vid­u­als who iden­ti­fy as LGBTQ and for indi­vid­u­als from low-income house­holds or fam­i­lies of color. 

When the pan­dem­ic hit, mil­lions of teach­ers and stu­dents across the coun­try shift­ed to remote learn­ing. This dras­tic change altered and — in some cas­es — erased the broad­er ben­e­fits that schools sup­ply. It also sep­a­rat­ed stu­dents from their famil­iar social struc­tures and networks. 

This new nor­mal wasn’t easy. Near­ly 3 in 10 par­ents sur­veyed in a May 2020 Gallup poll said that their child was expe­ri­enc­ing harm” to their emo­tion­al or men­tal health because of social dis­tanc­ing and school clo­sures while 45% cit­ed sep­a­ra­tion from teach­ers and class­mates as a major challenge.” 

Young peo­ple who iden­ti­fy as LGBTQ have found the pan­dem­ic espe­cial­ly chal­leng­ing, ear­ly research sug­gests. In one study, 50% of LGBTQ youth ages 13 to 17 and 65% of trans­gen­der and non­bi­na­ry youth said that COVID-19 impact­ed their abil­i­ty to express their sex­u­al iden­ti­ty. This same study found that 81% of LGBTQ youth described their liv­ing sit­u­a­tion dur­ing the pan­dem­ic as more stress­ful than it was pre-pandemic. 

Remote learn­ing also required stu­dents to obtain — and fast — cer­tain sup­plies, such as com­put­ers, print­ers and reli­able inter­net ser­vice. Some stu­dents, includ­ing stu­dents of col­or and stu­dents from low-income house­holds, had a hard­er time secur­ing these new school sta­ples, as not­ed in a 2021 U.S. Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion report. For exam­ple: By sum­mer 2020, near­ly 1 in 3 teach­ers sur­veyed in major­i­ty Black schools report­ed that their stu­dents lacked the tech­nol­o­gy nec­es­sary to take part in vir­tu­al instruc­tion. Only 1 in 5 teach­ers report­ed these same dif­fi­cul­ties in major­i­ty white schools.

More Resources on Gen­er­a­tion Z

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