Gen Z & Mental Health
Reviewed by therapist.com team
Generation Z, more commonly known as Gen Z, is a generational cohort currently consisting of preteens, adolescents, and young adults. They are situated between the Millennial generation (Generation Y) and Generation Alpha. Gen Z is known by multiple names, including:
- Generation Z
- Post-millennial generation
Most experts agree that people in Gen Z were born somewhere between the mid-1990s and early 2010s. The specific date range is still up for debate.
Earliest birth years for Gen Z tend to fluctuate between 1995 and 1997, while final qualifying years range from 2009 to 2011. Some notable institutions, such as Pew Research Center, have not yet finalized an end date for Gen Z. This is common for generations closest to the present day.
Between generational cutoffs exist microgenerations known as cusper generations. These cupser generations may exhibit characteristics of both larger generational cohorts.
Older Gen Zers may belong to the Zillennial microgeneration, which exists at the cutoff point between Millennials and Gen Z. The date range for Zillennials is up for debate. The earliest birth year typically ranges between 1992–1995, while the latest is set somewhere between 1998–2000.
No cusper generation between Gen Z and Generation Alpha has yet been identified. Based on previous microgenerations, one may eventually emerge for those born in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
- Race & ethnicity: According to Pew Research Center, nearly half (48%) of Gen Zers in the United States are nonwhite racial or ethnic minorities. 25% are Hispanic.
- Gender & sexuality: A recent Gallup poll shows that nearly 16% of Gen Zers identify as LGBTQIA+. Pew Research Center states that nearly 85% of Gen Zers believe that same-sex marriage is either good for society (48%) or doesn’t really make a difference (36%). Additionally, more than a third of Zoomers (35%) personally know someone who goes by gender-neutral pronouns.
- Education: 57% of college-age Gen Zers (18- to 21-year-olds) are enrolled in college, and 44% of Gen Zers live with a parent who has a college degree, according to Pew.
- Population percentage: 2019 U.S. census data showed that Gen Z makes up approximately 20% of the U.S. population.
Major Historical Impacts
- The Great Recession: Most Zoomers were 10 or younger when the Great Recession rocked the global economy. Their families may have experienced hardship personally (e.g., their home being foreclosed), or they may have observed the impact from afar (e.g., watching an older sibling struggle to find work after graduation).
- Climate change: Most Gen Zers have grown up in a world that has accepted climate change as fact but has done little to address its effects. With 2030 looming as the deadline to prevent irreversible damage, climate change affects how Gen Zers think about and plan for the future.
- School shootings: Gen Z has grown up in a post-Columbine world.In the 20 years after the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, there were 68 school shootings involving an active shooter, as defined by the FBI. From 2015 to 2018, a school shooting occurred, on average, every 77 days. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 75% of Gen Z say that mass shootings are a significant source of stress.
- Social media revolution: Gen Zers are digital natives who grew up with computers at home and in the classroom. They likely acquired their first smartphones while they were still in grade school. Social media has become for Gen Z what the mall was for Gen X: a place to gather with their peers, away from the prying eyes of parents and teachers.
- COVID-19 pandemic: For Gen Z, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many rights of passage: graduations, proms, college visits, sports seasons, summer vacations, birthday parties, first jobs, time with friends, and more. With vaccines approved for those 12 and older, most Gen Zers are now eligible for vaccination and a return to some level of normalcy.
In general, Gen Z is more open to talking about and seeking help for their mental health. Therapy is less stigmatized, with 37% reporting to the APA that they have received treatment from a mental health professional.
Gen Z has a greater awareness of mental health in general. Many Zoomers also have a stronger grasp of psychological words and phrases than individuals from other generations. Terms like “anxiety,” “depression,” “panic attack,” “dissociation,” and “executive dysfunction” are often used casually on various apps and social media platforms, such as TikTok and Twitter.
However, as these terms enter the mainstream, some of their clinical meaning is lost in favor of inaccurate generalizations. “Dissociating,” for example, is used by many Gen Zers, not as a specific symptom of mental illness, but as a synonym for “daydreaming” or “zoning out.” Although mental health stigma is decreasing, the fight against mental health misinformation continues.
According to a study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, levels of depression have increased for teenagers and young adults.
In 2005, only 8.7% of Millennials aged 12–17 reported experiencing a major depressive episode in the past year. In 2017, 13.2% of Gen Zers in the same age group experienced major depression. Rates of psychological distress and suicidal ideation have also increased for individuals aged 12–25.
Keep in mind that statistics based on self-reporting reflect not only increases in certain conditions in the population at large, but also increases in awareness and accessibility. As the stigma around depression decreases and more people have access to mental healthcare providers, rates of diagnosis will naturally increase.
Less than half of Gen Z (45%) said they had very good or excellent mental health, according to the APA. This makes Gen Z the generation with the lowest self-reported mental health, with majorities of all other generations (ranging from 51% of Gen X to 74% of adults in the Silent Generation or older) reporting more positive levels of mental health.
The stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit Gen Z particularly hard. The APA’s Stress in America™report for 2020 showed that 46% of Gen Z adults reported that their mental health worsened during the pandemic, the most of any other generation. Gen Zers also experienced the highest levels of loneliness (65%) during the pandemic compared to other generational cohorts.
Little publicly available research has yet been done on official rates of anxiety among Gen Z. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), one in every three teenagers (aged 13–18) will experience an anxiety disorder. However, this research is based on a study from 2001–2004, making anyone who was surveyed part of the Millennial generation, not Gen Z.
The American Academy of Pediatrics states that anxiety disorders in children and teens increased 20% from 2007 to 2012. Research based on these years would include children and young adults from both the Millennial generation and Gen Z.
Rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and other forms of psychological distress have increased for Gen Z, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. Since these conditions often occur alongside anxiety, it’s safe to say that anxiety may be on the rise for Gen Z. However, more research is needed to determine if Gen Z anxiety levels outpace those experienced by Millennials, who are currently recognized as the most anxious generation.
Almost all teenagers use social media. According to Pew Research Center, a whopping 95% of teenagers aged 13 to 17 have a smartphone. 97% are on at least one of seven major platforms (YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Reddit—the survey was conducted in 2018 before TikTok became one of the top 5 most popular social platforms for Gen Z). Additionally, 89% of teens said they were online either several times a day or “almost constantly.”
Social media presents unique mental health opportunities and challenges for Gen Z. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet and social media have been lifelines for the social lives of teenagers and young adults. Many events typically associated with relationships and connection—birthday parties, happy hours, game nights, holidays—moved online out of necessity. The popularity of online therapy also skyrocketed.
However, the mental health risks and challenges of the internet and social media should not be underestimated. Bullying, comparison, perfectionism, gossip, outrage media, and doomscrolling can cause, exacerbate, or otherwise contribute to serious mental health problems, such as:
- Eating disorders
- Suicidal ideation
Generations are not the same as stages of life. Although today’s teenagers are Gen Zers, Gen Z itself will continue to grow into adulthood, middle age, and eventually old age, while new generations will undergo the growing pains of adolescence.
Still, it is important to take into account stages of life when discussing generations. Some mental health trends are more greatly associated with a specific stage of life (e.g., struggling with mood swings during puberty) rather than shared experiences during a specific stage of life (e.g., living through the Great Recession during puberty). Many of the mental health challenges facing Gen Z, for example, are the same mental health challenges that Millennials, Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation faced during their own adolescence.
Teenage Mental Health Risks
- Suicide: Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that suicide was the second-leading cause of death for U.S. teenagers (aged 13–19) in 2019. LGBTQIA+ teenagers in particular are twice as likely to feel suicidal and more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight, cisgender peers.
- Smoking addiction: Almost 90% of adults who smoke started before age 18. About 75% of high school smokers end up becoming adult smokers, even if they intend to quit. According to the CDC, vaping is just as addictive as traditional smoking, since 99% of e-cigarettes contain nicotine, even those marketed as being nicotine-free.
- Other addictions & substance abuse: Many teenagers experiment with substances which may result in addiction, such as alcohol, prescription medications, marijuana, inhalants, and illegal drugs.
- Lack of sleep: The National Sleep Foundation states that teenagers need between eight and 10 hours of sleep each night. However, nearly 70% of high school students in America only get seven hours of sleep or less. This can increase their risk for anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), half of all mental health disorders begin by age 14 or sooner. However, most of these early onset mental health conditions are undiagnosed and therefore left untreated. Mental health disorders common among teenagers include:
- ADHD: The CDC estimates that nearly 14% of children aged 12 to 17 have ADHD.
- Anxiety: One in three teenagers will experience an anxiety disorder.
- Depression: About 13% of children aged 12 to 17 reported experiencing a major depressive episode in 2017.
- Eating disorders: 46% of teenagers in the U.S. attempt to lose weight, despite the fact that research shows that dieting during adolescence is typically associated with “unhealthy weight control behaviors and dieting” in adulthood. Teenagers who diet are at a greater risk of developing an eating disorder.
- Insomnia: Insomnia is estimated to affect nearly one in four teenagers in the U.S.
Are Generations Real?
It is important to note that generations are socially constructed categories. Specific details about each generation, such as date range, formative historical events, and even the name of the generation itself, are all finalized over time by a mix of expert and public opinion.
The Strauss-Howe generational theory states that generations occur in a four-stage cycle, with each generation lasting around 20–25 years. Each generation corresponds with a “turning,” which is a change in society and culture. The generations that come of age during a specific turning adopt a corresponding archetype.
A typical Strauss-Howe generational cycle would look like this:
- High: Society is functioning as it was built. This turning produces the idealist archetype, also known as the Prophet (currently Baby Boomers and eventually Generation Alpha).
- Awakening: Society begins to question why it was built the way it was and whether or not it actually functions. This turning produces the reactive archetype, also known as the Nomad (currently Gen X).
- Unraveling: Society begins to lose its ability to function as it was built. This turning produces the civic archetype, also known as the Hero (currently Millennials).
- Crisis: Society falls apart and is rebuilt to function in a new way. This turning produces the adaptive archetype, also known as the Artist (currently Gen Z and previously the Silent Generation).
While generations can be helpful ways of understanding others, they have their limits. Too often, generations can be reduced to stereotypes or confused with specific stages of life. Like all socially constructed categories, generations are most useful in the context of other demographics and shared social experiences, such as:
- Age and stage of life
- Race and ethnicity
- Relationship/marital status
- Ability and disability
- Occupation and workplace
- Family of origin
- Experience of pregnancy and/or parenthood
- Income and socioeconomic class
- Religion or faith community
- Immigration experience and/or status
- Physical health history
- Mental health history
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