A Generational Struggle: Gen Z and Millennials on Mental Health

Generation Z and millennials are starting to dominate society and the workforce. Some millennials are starting a family, while Gen Z is entering the workforce. So, how do each of these generations deal with their mental health, and what are the differences between each of them?

Gen Z refers to those born from 1997 to 2012, and millennials were born from 1981 to 1996. With an extensive age gap, mental health is an area where two generations often have different opinions and experiences, as we've seen in previous generations.

Around 76% of Americans, or three-quarters, reported having health problems related to stress in 2022, including headaches, exhaustion, feelings of nervousness or anxiety, and depressive or gloomy feelings.

Additionally, almost seven out of 10 people report other health effects related to stress, such as feeling overburdened, having irregular sleeping patterns, and worrying nonstop. Additionally, more than one in 10 people admitted to using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to unwind.

Less than half of Gen Z Americans, or 47%, are prospering in their life, which is among the lowest rates of any generation in the United States at the moment and far lower than millennials at the same age, according to a 2023 Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation survey.

"There is evidence that, in many respects, Gen Z and Millennials are closer in terms of mental health than other generations. Evidence indicates that Gen Z reports more anxiety, depression, and loneliness than Millennials. Gen Z has been exposed to the internet, social media, screens, and mobile technology from a young age, more so than Millennials," says senior couples and family therapist, Kalanit Ben-Ari, to Healthnews.

Although there is more awareness of mental health within Gen Z, it has a double-edged impact as they might be too quick to diagnose or medicate their conditions, seeking a quick fix for emotional suffering. They might narrow themselves to a mental health disorder rather than understanding the complexity and underlying issues of how they feel. While their mental health challenges may be very real, they often avoid getting to the root cause of the crisis.

I hear of Gen Z individuals who don't know how to start a conversation with a potential partner. So, although they see them at the university, they look for them on Tinder to start a conversation. These are basic social skills that are missing that impact their mental health.

- Ben-Ari

Furthermore, 2023 research indicated that while everyone can be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic or other traumatic events, some would endure a bigger, more noticeable influence than others in terms of development. The findings suggest that younger Gen Z individuals are a more psychologically fragile demographic than older generations, who exhibit more resilience in mental health struggles.

Research on generational variations in psychopathology and coping mechanisms should continue in the future to provide a defense against psychopathology symptoms.

Career burnout and inflation

Millennials face other challenges in regards to their mental health.

Park, a 36-year-old marketing director from New York City, says he has never felt more stressed in his life.

"I grew up playing in the park with friends, going out for ice cream, studying hard, and getting rewarded for the things I did. Now, I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case," says the millennial.

Park works almost 10 hours a day, with barely any time to eat lunch or go for a walk.

"I dread going to work every morning because I’m so tired. I pulled many all-nighters in school but was way more energetic than I am now."

He wakes up at 7 a.m. to go to work and comes home around 7 p.m. to make dinner and fall back to sleep quickly. He has limited to no energy for any social activities on the weekend, and most of his thoughts are filled with work-related topics.

A recent Lhasa OMS study of 2,000 individuals found that millennials have mental health issues for three main reasons, all of which are connected to their professions.

Among those polled, 74% of millennials said that their debt and money are making them burn out, while 65% blame work stress and 56% blame striving to strike the correct work-life balance.

Additionally, 91% said that having a larger salary would make them feel less anxious.

Park says, "Although I live alone and provide just for myself, the inflation is real, and I don’t even think I’m saving enough. I’m not sure how those with a family provide for multiple people because, in this economy, that’s just incredibly difficult."

Social media’s impact on mental health

Ben Ari says that the rise and evolution of social media platforms have played a significant role in the mental health crisis. While millennials experienced the advent of these platforms in their teens or adulthood, Gen Z was born into it. The comparisons, instant gratifications, cyberbullying, and influencer culture affect their mental health differently.

Gen Z grows up in a culture that is obsessed with self-care as the end goal rather than as a means to be in service to others. There is also, for many, a lack of meaning and purpose, which might also be linked to depression and anxiety.

Stella, a 22-year-old Gen Z college student from Ithaca, New York, says her mental health has deteriorated in the past few years.

"For all my life, I listened to my parents and grew up doing everything they told me to do. I spent my days doing homework, studying, doing extracurricular activities, and preparing myself for college. Now that I’m in college, everything seems meaningless and I spend a lot of my time just lounging around or zoning out," she says.

She says social media also has not been a positive influence on her life.

My screen time is excessively high. All I do every day is go to class, study, and look at my phone. I switch from one social media app to another, and the day ends. I sleep way too late and wake up right before my noon class, which means I don’t have time to eat breakfast or lunch. I’m always running late to class and grabbing something quick for dinner before going on my phone again.

- Stella

Like Stella, many of her friends also resonate with her sedentary lifestyle. She explains that her friends are anxious about not doing enough, and she believes her generation is "really depressed" and compares themselves to other people.

"Inflation is intense," says Stella, resonating with Park's stress over money. "And although I worked hard to get into the school I go to now, I don’t know if the corporate world will allow me to live the lifestyle that I used to dream of when I was a kid."

Stella shares that when she looks at Instagram or TikTok, she constantly sees other people her age seeming to thrive, while she continuously feels anxious and lonely.

"I know I should lower my screen time and focus more on doing physical activities to keep myself active and healthy, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. We’re so used to lying on our bed and scrolling through social media. I don’t know how to get out of this loop and feel like myself again," she says.

How can we improve mental health discussions?

The Internet is going away, ever. It's here to stay as a permanent staple in our lives — and in the lives of future generations. Social media and online self-help tools are where members of the Gen Z and Millennial generations are most likely to go for mental health services, hence, it is crucial to use these platforms to screen for psychopathology through community-wide programming initiatives.

Despite certain commonalities, research has found that even younger generations engage and seek out digital intervention resources for substance misuse in various ways.

Many Gen Z’s, like Stella, often seek therapy to share their feelings and work on their emotions.

Ben-Ari shares that the common reasons individuals seek therapy are due to mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, loneliness, burnout, communication and relationship problems with loved ones, grief, lack of meaningful connections, despair, and lack of meaning and purpose.

She suggests that the public needs to change the entire framework in which we discuss and understand mental health. People are using words like "trauma," "depression," "anxiety," or "mental health" in the day-to-day language in ways that minimize their experience and language and, in many cases, cause more harm than good.

Regulating social media and educating parents and teens on its manipulation of young people and its harmful impact is a great place to start tackling screen time.

Ben-Ari says, "We need to strengthen meaningful connections in communities, beyond the superficiality of social media. We need to create spaces for children to be children, out and about outdoors, rather than being behind closed doors in their bedrooms and on screens. We need to encourage more in-person gatherings and friendships."

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