Generation Z and Mental Health

Updated May 12, 2024 | Posted March 3, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Mental health is a pressing issue for Generation Z

Mem­bers of Gen­er­a­tion Z — defined here as indi­vid­u­als born between 1997 and 2012 — are grow­ing up in an age of increased stress and anx­i­ety. Some 84% of Gen Zers believe men­tal health is a cri­sis in the Unit­ed States, and they are over 80% more like­ly to report deal­ing with anx­i­ety or depres­sion com­pared to old­er gen­er­a­tions, accord­ing to recent Gen Z studies.

Why Focus on Men­tal Health for Gen Z, Specifically?

For­mer U.S. Sur­geon Gen­er­al David Satch­er once said, There is no health with­out men­tal health,” which is true for all age groups. Gen Zers, rang­ing from ages 12 to 27 in 2024, are unique because the vast major­i­ty are going through a crit­i­cal stage of devel­op­ment. A large body of research has shown that the age span of rough­ly 14 through 24 marks a for­ma­tive phase of life in which pro­found cog­ni­tive, bio­log­i­cal and psy­choso­cial changes are tak­ing place. At the same time, these young peo­ple must nav­i­gate increas­ing auton­o­my, form­ing their iden­ti­ties, devel­op­ing rela­tion­ship and life skills, obtain­ing edu­ca­tion and career train­ing and more. This is also a vul­ner­a­ble time for ado­les­cent men­tal health, as about 75% of men­tal ill­ness­es emerge between ages 10 and 24. This crit­i­cal peri­od is an impor­tant win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty to sup­port young peo­ple, pro­mote their men­tal well-being and help set them on a pos­i­tive path for the future.

Gen Zers are also cor­rect in their assessment—they are fac­ing a men­tal health cri­sis. Lead­ing orga­ni­za­tions such as the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Pedi­atrics and the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Child and Ado­les­cent Psy­chi­a­try recent­ly declared a nation­al state of emer­gency for child and youth men­tal health. And while most young peo­ple are phys­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly healthy, trends in youth sui­cide, men­tal health ER vis­its, depres­sion and anx­i­ety have been on the rise over the past decade or more. This cri­sis has affect­ed younger chil­dren and mil­len­ni­als, too. Gen­er­a­tion Z has been excep­tion­al­ly open about shar­ing their strug­gles, as described in this post.

Note: When con­sid­er­ing the men­tal health of Gen­er­a­tion Z, it can be use­ful to remem­ber that:

  • Gen Z is not a mono­lith. They’re extreme­ly diverse — racial­ly, lin­guis­ti­cal­ly, cul­tur­al­ly and socioe­co­nom­i­cal­ly — and more like­ly to iden­ti­fy as LGBTQ+ than old­er age groups. Nat­u­ral­ly, they have many influ­ences on their men­tal health beyond the gen­er­a­tion in which they were born.
  • Com­par­isons across gen­er­a­tions are tricky because it is dif­fi­cult to tease apart what might be actu­al gen­er­a­tional dif­fer­ences from demo­graph­ic pop­u­la­tion shifts or age-relat­ed fac­tors, such as devel­op­men­tal phas­es and dif­fer­ences in health care access.

Gen­er­a­tion Z Bat­tles Anx­i­ety and Depression

Near­ly two-thirds (65%) of Gen Zers report­ed expe­ri­enc­ing at least one men­tal health prob­lem in the past two years, accord­ing to a mul­ti-year study released in 2023. This sta­tis­tic was low­er for all old­er gen­er­a­tions, includ­ing mil­len­ni­als (51%), Gen Xers (29%) and Boomers (14%).

While these dif­fer­ences may be par­tial­ly explained by Gen Z’s stage of life, some research indi­cates that Gen Z has high­er rates of self-report­ed men­tal health chal­lenges com­pared to pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions at the same age. For exam­ple, the lat­est CDC Youth Risk Behav­ior Sur­vey data shows that 42% of Gen Z high school­ers report­ed per­sis­tent feel­ings of sad­ness or hope­less­ness in 2021, which is near­ly 50% high­er than reports of mil­len­ni­al high school­ers in the ear­ly 2000s. Among girls, this fig­ure was 35% for mil­len­ni­al high school­ers in 2001 com­pared to 57% of Gen Z high school­ers in 2021.

Recent sur­veys of Gen Zers show wide­spread self-report­ed strug­gles with anx­i­ety and depres­sion. For instance:

  • A 2023 Gallup sur­vey found that almost half (47%) of Gen Zers ages 12 to 26 often or always feel anx­ious, and more than one in five (22%) often or always feel depressed. Fig­ures were even high­er for the females and adults in this sam­ple, and they were alarm­ing­ly high for LGBTQ+ adults (with 74% feel­ing anx­ious and 50% feel­ing depressed).
  • Among Gen Z young adults ages 18 to 24, a fall 2022 Cen­sus Bureau sur­vey found that more than two in five (44%) report­ed per­sis­tent ner­vous, on edge or anx­ious feel­ings, and one in three (33%) report­ed per­sis­tent depressed, down or hope­less feel­ings. These sur­vey ques­tions are well-estab­lished screen­ers for depres­sion and anx­i­ety disorders.
  • Accord­ing to a 2022 fed­er­al sur­vey of near­ly 15,000 Gen Z youth ages 12 to 17, one in five (20%) had a major depres­sive episode in the pre­vi­ous year, equiv­a­lent to 4.8 mil­lion ado­les­cents. An even greater share—25%—had either a major depres­sive episode or a sub­stance use dis­or­der in the past year. 
  • The same fed­er­al sur­vey asked dif­fer­ent men­tal health ques­tions of peo­ple 18 and old­er, but sim­i­lar­ly found that 20% of Gen Z young adults ages 18 to 25 also expe­ri­enced a major depres­sive episode in the past year. This fig­ure tends to be low­er for old­er age groups: 10% for ages 26 to 49 and 5% for those 50 and above in 2022.
  • Fur­ther, accord­ing to this fed­er­al sur­vey, more than one in three (36%) Gen Z young adults ages 18 to 25 had Any Men­tal Ill­ness” in the past year, which means any men­tal, behav­ioral, or emo­tion­al dis­or­der of suf­fi­cient length to meet clin­i­cal diag­nos­tic cri­te­ria, exclud­ing devel­op­men­tal and sub­stance use dis­or­ders. This is equiv­a­lent to 12.6 mil­lion young people.

Men­tal Health ER Vis­its and Hos­pi­tal­iza­tions Back­up Gen Z Self-Reports

In addi­tion to Gen­er­a­tion Z’s self-reports of depres­sion, anx­i­ety and oth­er strug­gles, data on men­tal health hos­pi­tal­iza­tions and emer­gency room (ER) vis­its demon­strate sim­i­lar­ly con­cern­ing findings.

  • Among young peo­ple ages 6 to 24, the share of ER vis­its for men­tal health prob­lems near­ly dou­bled from 2011 to 2020—and sui­cide-relat­ed vis­its increased five-fold—according to a 2023 study. (Gen Z spanned ages 8 to 23 in 2020.) These increas­es occurred for younger chil­dren, ado­les­cents, and young adults, with the largest jump observed for ado­les­cents. Men­tal health-relat­ed ER vis­its increased sig­nif­i­cant­ly across all demo­graph­ic groups stud­ied, e.g., by gen­der, race and eth­nic­i­ty, insur­ance type and geography.
  • Addi­tion­al research found that ER vis­its for sui­cide attempts con­tin­ued to climb in 2021 for youth ages 12 to 17, and that men­tal health-relat­ed ER vis­its among young peo­ple are gen­er­al­ly becom­ing more com­plex and result­ing in longer hos­pi­tal stays.
  • Among all youth ages 11 to 20 who are hos­pi­tal­ized in the Unit­ed States, more than one in five have a men­tal health or sub­stance use diag­no­sis, accord­ing to the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Pediatrics. 
  • Data show ris­ing men­tal health hos­pi­tal­iza­tions and trou­bling read­mis­sion rates among chil­dren and youth in the past decade. For instance, a 2023 study found that such hos­pi­tal­iza­tions increased by more than 25% between 2009 and 2019, and hos­pi­tal­iza­tions due to sui­cide or self-injury rose at least 1.6‑fold.

Why Is Gen­er­a­tion Z So Depressed?

There is no sim­ple or defin­i­tive answer, but experts sug­gest a range of pos­si­ble con­trib­u­tors to the rise in men­tal health prob­lems among young peo­ple, includ­ing but not lim­it­ed to:

  • High rates of social media use
  • Wors­en­ing stress and social con­texts due to issues like cli­mate change, mass shoot­ings, racial vio­lence and the opi­oid epidemic
  • Long-term effects of eco­nom­ic inequities

Recent sur­veys have asked Gen Zers what they think is con­tribut­ing to their men­tal health chal­lenges. Here’s what they said:

Finan­cial stress and achieve­ment pres­sure: A major­i­ty (56%) of Gen Z young adults ages 18 to 25 say finan­cial wor­ries are neg­a­tive­ly influ­enc­ing their men­tal health, and half (51%) say achieve­ment pres­sure is hav­ing the same impact, accord­ing to a 2022 nation­al­ly rep­re­sen­ta­tive sur­vey by Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty. In a sim­i­lar vein, 2023 Gallup sur­vey found that more than two-thirds (69%) of Gen Zers ages 12 to 26 say their most impor­tant hope for the future is to earn enough mon­ey to be com­fort­able, yet 64% see finan­cial resources as a bar­ri­er to achiev­ing their goals or aspirations—by far the top report­ed barrier.

Lack of life direc­tion and pur­pose: The same Har­vard study found that half of Gen Z young adults say their men­tal health is neg­a­tive­ly affect­ed by not know­ing what to do with their lives, and almost three in five (58%) lacked mean­ing or pur­pose in their lives with­in the past month. Among young peo­ple ages 12 to 26, anoth­er 2023 Gallup sur­vey found that the biggest dri­ver of Gen Z hap­pi­ness is their sense of pur­pose at either school or work, but 43% to 49% of Gen Zers do not feel what they do each day is inter­est­ing, impor­tant or motivating.”

Cli­mate change and glob­al wor­ries: Near­ly half (45%) of young adults ages 18 to 25 think their men­tal health is harmed by an over­all sense that things are falling apart,” and one in three (34%) say cli­mate change is hav­ing a neg­a­tive effect. A recent inter­na­tion­al study of 10,000 young peo­ple ages 16 to 25 also found that more than 80% were wor­ried about the cli­mate cri­sis, with many express­ing feel­ings of sad­ness, anx­i­ety, anger and pow­er­less­ness.

A need for con­nec­tion with oth­ers:
Sad­ly, more than two in five (44%) Gen Z young adults feel like they don’t mat­ter to oth­ers, and one in three (34%) report lone­li­ness, accord­ing to the same Har­vard sur­vey. This is cor­rob­o­rat­ed by 2023 Gallup find­ings that about one in three Gen Zers ages 12 to 26 do not often feel loved (31%) or sup­port­ed (35%) by oth­ers, and a sim­i­lar share (30%) always/​often feel like nobody knows them well. This is espe­cial­ly trou­bling giv­en that these young peo­ple are going through a vul­ner­a­ble devel­op­men­tal stage, and evi­dence indi­cates that sta­ble, sup­port­ive rela­tion­ships are impor­tant for pos­i­tive men­tal health.

Gun vio­lence and social issues in Amer­i­ca:
More than two in five (42%) Gen Z young adults say gun vio­lence neg­a­tive­ly affects their men­tal health, and 70% see this as a pub­lic health issue. Mul­ti­ple sur­veys also find that Gen Z is con­cerned about access to health care, repro­duc­tive health care, racial jus­tice, LGBTQ+ rights, and oth­er social issues.

Tech­nol­o­gy like­ly plays a role, too. On one hand, grow­ing up in a hyper­con­nect­ed world can pro­vide access to pos­i­tive social con­nec­tions and sup­port­ive resources. On the oth­er hand, it can fuel a steady drum­beat of neg­a­tive news sto­ries, encour­age unhealthy social com­par­isons and increase the risk of online harass­ment. LGBTQ+ youth and young peo­ple of col­or face par­tic­u­lar risks of dis­crim­i­na­tion on social media. Some research links high­ lev­els of social media use among youth to adverse out­comes, includ­ing depres­sion and inad­equate sleep. Those who are already strug­gling with men­tal health prob­lems may be more like­ly to use social media, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to untan­gle the effects of technology.

What caus­es depres­sion in young peo­ple, generally?

Men­tal health con­di­tions like depres­sion and anx­i­ety dis­or­ders are com­plex and not caused by a sin­gle issue. Instead, mul­ti­ple fac­tors are involved and may range from brain chem­istry dis­rup­tions and genet­ic vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to trau­mat­ic expe­ri­ences (e.g., abuse, expo­sure to vio­lence, death of a loved one) and neg­a­tive thought pat­terns. Many oth­er fac­tors and cir­cum­stances can increase the risk of these con­di­tions in young peo­ple, such as: sub­stance abuse; chron­ic phys­i­cal health con­di­tions; low self-esteem; LGBTQ+ youth who lack sup­port; and long-term rela­tion­ship or school prob­lems. The con­trib­u­tors to depres­sion and oth­er men­tal ill­ness­es are dif­fer­ent for every young per­son, and each indi­vid­ual is influ­enced by their unique bio­log­i­cal, fam­i­ly, com­mu­ni­ty, cul­tur­al and envi­ron­men­tal contexts.

Gen­er­a­tion Z and Suicide

The U.S. sui­cide rate for young peo­ple ages 10 to 24 surged by 57% from 2009 to 2019. The rate con­tin­ued climb­ing through 2021 before declin­ing in 2022. Sui­cide was the third lead­ing cause of death for Gen­er­a­tion Z over­all in 2022, who spanned ages 10 to 25 that year, although it was the sec­ond lead­ing cause of death among younger (ages 10 to 14) and old­er (20 to 24) Gen Zers. 

Data shows that sui­cide rates vary by demo­graph­ic fac­tors, such as age, gen­der, LGBTQ+ sta­tus and race or ethnicity.

Girls and young women are more like­ly to plan and attempt sui­cide, but boys and young men are more like­ly to die by sui­cide per the CDC’s Youth Risk Behav­ior Sur­vey and Lead­ing Caus­es of Death. In 2022, for instance, males account­ed for 78% of sui­cides among youth ages 10 to 24. Researchers explain that males typ­i­cal­ly use more lethal means when attempt­ing suicide.

Amer­i­can Indi­an or Alas­ka Native youth in the same age range have the high­est sui­cide rate com­pared to oth­er racial/​ethnic groups, and Native Hawai­ian or Oth­er Pacif­ic Islander youth (not com­bined with Asian) have the sec­ond high­est rate. While rates are low­er for Asian youth ages 10 to 24, sui­cide is the lead­ing cause of death for this group, and alarm­ing trends have been observed in recent decades, includ­ing sui­cide rates spik­ing by 140% from 1998 to 2018 among Asian young peo­ple. Rates are also low­er for Black youth, although it is still the third lead­ing cause of death for this group, and lead­ers have been call­ing atten­tion to con­cern­ing increas­es here, as well. For exam­ple, a 2024 study not­ed that the sui­cide rate for Black youth ages 10 to 24 jumped by 37% between 2018 and 2021, the largest increase of all racial and eth­nic groups in this period.

In addi­tion, the lat­est Youth Risk Behav­ior Sur­vey data show that more than one in five (22%) U.S. high school­ers seri­ous­ly con­sid­ered attempt­ing sui­cide in the past year and a star­tling one in 10 (10%) actu­al­ly attempt­ed sui­cide in 2021. Among racial and eth­nic groups, the share attempt­ing sui­cide was high­est for Amer­i­can Indi­an or Alas­ka Native (16%), Black (15%) and mul­tira­cial (12%) stu­dents. Gen Zers of col­or dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly face risk fac­tors for men­tal health con­di­tions, such as less access to treat­ment in addi­tion to expo­sure to racism, pover­ty, food inse­cu­ri­ty and oth­er adverse child­hood expe­ri­ences.

Too many young peo­ple expe­ri­ence added stress due to dis­crim­i­na­tion based on race, eth­nic­i­ty, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion and gen­der iden­ti­ty. Lead­ing health orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing the CDC and Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Pedi­atrics, view racism and dis­crim­i­na­tion as a major pub­lic health con­cern, acknowl­edg­ing its known effects on the men­tal health of young people. 

In 20212022. approx­i­mate­ly 1.7 mil­lion youth ages 12 to 17 (7%) report­ed­ly had been treat­ed or judged unfair­ly because of their race or eth­nic­i­ty, and about 636,000 (3%) because of their sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion or gen­der iden­ti­ty. Fur­ther, a 2023 nation­al sur­vey revealed that 60% of LGBTQ+ young peo­ple ages 13 to 24 expe­ri­enced dis­crim­i­na­tion in the past year due to their sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion or gen­der iden­ti­ty, and about one in four (24%) were phys­i­cal­ly threat­ened or hurt for the same rea­son. Those who were threat­ened or harmed were much more like­ly to attempt suicide.

Sui­cide attempts are trag­i­cal­ly high for LGBTQ+ high school stu­dents, as well, at 22% in 2021, com­pared to 6% for het­ero­sex­u­al stu­dents. And near­ly half (45%) of U.S. LGBTQ+ high school­ers seri­ous­ly con­sid­ered attempt­ing sui­cide in the past year, three times the rate (15%) of their het­ero­sex­u­al peers. 

The vast major­i­ty of LGBTQ+ youth say that they want men­tal health care, but most of them (56%) are not able to get it, accord­ing to the 2023 sur­vey not­ed above. The bar­ri­ers they list illus­trate that too many youth lack the sup­port they need, includ­ing fears of dis­cussing con­cerns (47%) get­ting per­mis­sion to access care (41%) and not being tak­en seri­ous­ly (40%), among oth­er fears. Oth­er com­mon bar­ri­ers were not being able to afford it (38%) and being afraid it wouldn’t work (33%).

In addi­tion to LGBTQ+ youth and young peo­ple of col­or, sui­cide rates are also high for those with dis­abil­i­ties, youth in rur­al areas, and those in the fos­ter care or juve­nile jus­tice sys­tems. Immi­grant and low-income young peo­ple face ele­vat­ed risks for men­tal health chal­lenges, as well.

Read more about teen sui­cide trends in our post on Lead­ing Caus­es on Death in Teens, which includes data on sui­cides by firearm and resources on how to reduce teen deaths.

Gen Z Tends To Be Open About Men­tal Health and Seek­ing Help, But Can’t Always Access Care

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 39% of Gen Zers — a high­er rate than any pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion — report work­ing with a men­tal health pro­fes­sion­al in per­son or online.

Still, access to care remains a prob­lem, as illus­trat­ed above for LGBTQ+ young peo­ple. Accord­ing to Men­tal Health Amer­i­ca, 60% of Gen Z youth ages 12 to 17 with major depres­sion do not receive treat­ment. This is rough­ly in line with oth­er stud­ies show­ing that around half of chil­dren and youth who need men­tal health care do not get it.

Access to care is a chal­lenge for Gen Z young adults, too. A 2022 Kaiser Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion sur­vey found that almost half (47%) of young adults ages 18 to 29 did not get men­tal health care in the past year when they thought they might need it, with cost cit­ed among the top bar­ri­ers. Oth­er com­mon­ly report­ed bar­ri­ers to get­ting help include stig­ma (being afraid or embar­rassed), feel­ing too busy or hav­ing dif­fi­cul­ty get­ting time off work, chal­lenges find­ing a provider, insur­ance lim­i­ta­tions and not know­ing how to find services. 

Even though stig­ma con­tin­ues to be a com­mon bar­ri­er to men­tal health treat­ment, many experts cred­it Gen Z for help­ing to reduce stig­ma around men­tal health. One study esti­mat­ed that mem­bers of Gen­er­a­tion Z are 20% more will­ing to talk about their men­tal health than old­er gen­er­a­tions. This is crit­i­cal, as more open­ness about emo­tion­al health issues not only helps de-stig­ma­tize the sub­ject, but also cre­ates more aware­ness and oppor­tu­ni­ties to receive and/​or pro­vide support.

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

Youth of col­or are less like­ly to receive men­tal health care com­pared to white youth. Many issues con­tribute to this dis­par­i­ty, includ­ing stig­ma, dis­trust in providers, a lack of cul­tur­al­ly com­pe­tent providers or dif­fi­cul­ty find­ing providers. Larg­er struc­tur­al inequities also con­tribute to access prob­lems, such as socioe­co­nom­ic, health insur­ance and geo­graph­ic barriers.

Men­tal Health Amer­i­ca and oth­ers have report­ed that Asian youth are the least like­ly to receive men­tal health treat­ment com­pared to ado­les­cents in oth­er racial or eth­nic groups. Inequities in access to care and unmet needs have also been doc­u­ment­ed for Black, Lati­no, Amer­i­can Indi­an or Alas­ka Native and mul­tira­cial young peo­ple. Lim­it­ed access to men­tal health ser­vices for youth of col­or ele­vates the risk of poor out­comes, and it might explain low­er rates of diag­no­sis for some groups. 

In com­mu­ni­ties of col­or (and soci­ety in gen­er­al), men­tal ill­ness and men­tal health care are often stig­ma­tized. For exam­ple, research on Asian Amer­i­can, Native Hawai­ian and Pacif­ic Islander com­mu­ni­ties indi­cates that men­tal health can be very stig­ma­tized, which affects the like­li­hood of seek­ing pro­fes­sion­al care. Lan­guage and cul­ture play an impor­tant role in per­cep­tions and com­mu­ni­ca­tion of men­tal health issues, as well. For exam­ple, Asian Amer­i­cans tend to have low­er rates of men­tal health diag­no­sis because their symp­toms are more like­ly to man­i­fest as phys­i­cal health prob­lems, accord­ing to research. And in some native lan­guages, words such as depressed” and anx­ious” do not direct­ly trans­late, point­ing to the need for providers with shared cul­tur­al and lin­guis­tic backgrounds.

Near­ly 75% of U.S. men­tal health care providers are white, accord­ing to the Anx­i­ety and Depres­sion Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­ca. Experts note that peo­ple of col­or may be less like­ly to trust pro­fes­sion­als who do not share their cul­tur­al back­grounds, and they may not have con­fi­dence that such pro­fes­sion­als will pro­vide cul­tur­al­ly respon­sive care. Addi­tion­al­ly, trust­ing health care providers, in gen­er­al, can be a chal­lenge for peo­ple of col­or giv­en our country’s his­to­ry of sys­temic racism, slav­ery and geno­cide, which has con­tributed to inter­gen­er­a­tional psy­cho­log­i­cal trauma.

There­fore, even when Gen Z youth of col­or opt to seek help, they may strug­gle to find a pro­fes­sion­al they trust, who under­stands their back­ground or lan­guage and who pro­vides cul­tur­al­ly respon­sive ser­vices. Fur­ther, they may be hard-pressed to find a pro­fes­sion­al at all, rec­og­niz­ing the gen­er­al short­age of men­tal health providers and the lim­it­ed men­tal health ser­vices for ado­les­cents in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. Providers tend to be lim­it­ed in rur­al and low-income areas, as well. These youth also may face bar­ri­ers due to cost of care or health insur­ance. Men­tal ill­ness fre­quent­ly goes untreat­ed in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or due to high­er lev­els of unin­sur­ance, as report­ed by the Anx­i­ety and Depres­sion Asso­ci­a­tion of Amer­i­ca.

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

While men­tal health trends for Gen Z were going in the wrong direc­tion before the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, the pan­dem­ic exac­er­bat­ed emo­tion­al health chal­lenges for youth and had a sig­nif­i­cant adverse impact on the lives of Gen­er­a­tion Z.

The pan­dem­ic rad­i­cal­ly changed their fam­i­ly, com­mu­ni­ty, edu­ca­tion­al, social and employ­ment expe­ri­ences. It shift­ed learn­ing online. Cre­at­ed social iso­la­tion. Closed com­mu­ni­ty pro­grams. Desta­bi­lized the econ­o­my. Derailed employ­ment and col­lege for many. 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. Many effects of the pan­dem­ic con­tin­ue today. 

School clo­sures were par­tic­u­lar­ly hard on young peo­ple and fam­i­lies, by caus­ing social iso­la­tion, weak­en­ing learn­ing expe­ri­ences and remov­ing a crit­i­cal safe­ty net for fam­i­lies. About two in five fam­i­lies with chil­dren (includ­ing Gen Zers under 18) had dif­fi­cul­ty pay­ing for basic house­hold expens­es dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and at least half lost employ­ment income after the pan­dem­ic hit. Schools offer con­sis­tent meals, med­ical screen­ings and sup­port ser­vices for many chil­dren and youth. In some areas, schools are also the only source of men­tal health ser­vices for young peo­ple — par­tic­u­lar­ly for youth who iden­ti­fy as LGBTQ+ and for indi­vid­u­als from low-income house­holds and fam­i­lies of col­or. Los­ing this safe­ty net dur­ing the pan­dem­ic sig­nif­i­cant­ly added to the hard­ship expe­ri­enced by mil­lions of chil­dren, youth and families.

Among Gen Z young adults, many had their col­lege plans, jobs and finances knocked off track. For instance, in Octo­ber 2020, more than 40% of U.S. house­holds report­ed that a prospec­tive col­lege stu­dent was can­celing plans to attend com­mu­ni­ty col­lege, accord­ing to Cen­sus Bureau data. Col­lege enroll­ment rates have con­tin­ued to decline since the pan­dem­ic. Addi­tion­al Cen­sus Bureau data on the KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter demon­strate some of the employ­ment and finan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties they faced, as well: 

  • In April-May 2020, 63% of young adults ages 18 to 24 report­ed that they or a house­hold mem­ber lost employ­ment income since the pan­dem­ic began.
  • Just under one in 10 (9%) young adults said they some­times or often did not have enough food to eat pri­or to the pan­dem­ic but as of April-May 2020, 14% said they did not have enough to eat in the past week. While this fig­ure fluc­tu­at­ed over the next two years, it was still 13% as of Octo­ber-Novem­ber 2022.
  • In April-May 2020, more than one in five (22%) young adults said they had lit­tle or no con­fi­dence in their abil­i­ty to make their next rent or mort­gage pay­ment on time. This fig­ure declined to 13% as of the lat­est data avail­able in March-May 2022

Giv­en all of these chal­lenges, it may not be sur­pris­ing that men­tal health con­cerns climbed dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, by all accounts. Near­ly two in five (37%) U.S. high school­ers said they expe­ri­enced poor men­tal health dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, and over half (55%) said they endured emo­tion­al abuse by some­one at home, accord­ing to the CDC. Among par­ents, almost half (47%) said the pan­dem­ic had a neg­a­tive effect on their child’s men­tal health, based on a nation­al 2022 Kaiser Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion (KFF) sur­vey. Fur­ther, about sev­en in 10 par­ents were con­cerned about the impact of pan­dem­ic-caused iso­la­tion or lone­li­ness on teens, and more than eight in 10 were wor­ried about depres­sion or anx­i­ety among teens. Most par­ents were also wor­ried about ado­les­cent strug­gles with sub­stance use, self-harm and eat­ing disorders.

The same KFF sur­vey found that Black and Lati­no par­ents were more like­ly than white par­ents to be very wor­ried” about many ado­les­cent emo­tion­al health issues. For exam­ple, more Lati­no par­ents were very wor­ried” about lone­li­ness or iso­la­tion due to the pan­dem­ic com­pared to white par­ents: 45% vs 27%, respec­tive­ly. And Black par­ents were more like­ly than white par­ents to wor­ry about teen depres­sion: 53% vs. 39%. (The sur­vey did not break out addi­tion­al racial or eth­nic groups.)

Experts note that the pan­dem­ic mag­ni­fied exist­ing health inequities in Amer­i­ca, expos­ing gaps in the men­tal health and health care sys­tems, with the fall­out dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact­ing low-income pop­u­la­tions and peo­ple of col­or. How­ev­er, on the pos­i­tive side, the pan­dem­ic gen­er­al­ly increased aware­ness of men­tal health issues and expand­ed telemed­i­cine oppor­tu­ni­ties, which expand­ed access to ser­vices for those fac­ing geo­graph­ic or oth­er bar­ri­ers to care. Still, men­tal health care needs to be bet­ter inte­grat­ed into pri­ma­ry health care, among many oth­er steps to improve men­tal health out­comes for young people.

Read more about how the pan­dem­ic dis­rupt­ed the lives of chil­dren and fam­i­lies in 2020.

Tak­ing Action to Address Gen Z Men­tal Health

Mil­lions of Gen Zers have been strug­gling for too long, and inequities in men­tal health con­di­tions and access to care must be improved. While youth men­tal health has gained pub­lic atten­tion and trac­tion in recent years, much more effort is need­ed at the nation­al, state and local levels. 

The fol­low­ing resources offer a range of strate­gies that can be tak­en now by pol­i­cy­mak­ers, admin­is­tra­tors, fun­ders, edu­ca­tion lead­ers and edu­ca­tors, var­i­ous ser­vice providers, advo­cates, fam­i­lies, youth and oth­ers. At min­i­mum, it will require mul­ti­ple sec­tors: giv­ing this issue high­er pri­or­i­ty; back­ing it up with ade­quate fund­ing, pol­i­cy and infra­struc­ture; strength­en­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion across orga­ni­za­tions and sec­tors; increas­ing men­tal health ser­vices and sup­ports, espe­cial­ly at schools; improv­ing the diver­si­ty of and train­ing for the men­tal health work­force; and focus­ing on equi­ty and youth empow­er­ment at every step.

More Resources on Gen­er­a­tion Z and Men­tal Health

Stay cur­rent on issues impact­ing youth and young adults by sign­ing up for one of our newslet­ters today!

Con­tin­ue learn­ing about Gen­er­a­tion Z, Gen­er­a­tion Alpha, and how these young peo­ple will shape America’s future:

KIDS COUNT Data Cen­ter indi­ca­tors on Gen Z and oth­er generations:

Addi­tion­al Resources to Sup­port Youth Men­tal Health

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