Sadie Sutton was 16 years old when she began treatment for depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. It was both an extraordinary and common experience. Unique because she was a 14-year old who was admitted to a residential treatment facility in Montana. She was then transferred to a therapeutic boarding school in Montana. She learned that many teenagers were experiencing mental health crises.
70% of teens surveyed said that anxiety and depression were major issues among their peers in 2019, regardless of gender, income, or race. The American Psychological Association released data that showed that Gen Z members were 37% and 35% more likely to have had professional mental health treatment, respectively, than any other generation.
Sadie was told by her parents that things would improve even in her darkest moments. There was a disconnect. She wanted to hear from other young people who had experienced similar difficulties. After she was released from treatment, she started She Persisted, a podcast about mental health.
Sutton, a 19-year old psychology major, has produced over 100 episodes on topics such as ADHD, diet culture, optimizing therapy, substance abuse, and acne. Her podcast is just one of a growing number of resources for Gen Z regarding mental health. Many of these are often created by Gen Z. Although interest in mental health is on the rise over the years, and millennials are often called the “therapy generation”, Gen Z-ers advocate for themselves like none other.
Vaile Wright, a psychologist and spokesperson for the APA, says that “we’re seeing a whole new generation in how we talk about mental illness.” “That started before the pandemic and it’s only gotten worse since.”
As they grew up, millennials began to question the intergenerational biases surrounding mental health. Celebrities like Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez, Michael Phelps and Lady Gaga have openedly discussed their struggles. This has helped to open up the discussion about something once considered a private matter.
As Gen Z, those between 10 and 25, emerge from the pandemic, go through the trials of adolescence and enter the workforce, it is clear that they are pushing this conversation further. Elliot Pinsly is a licensed clinical social worker who is also the president and CEO at Behavioral Health Foundation. “Young people are definitely leaning towards talking about mental health and advocating for mental healthcare,” Pinsly says. “But, there is still a lot stigma and misunderstanding around what mental health is.”
It is not easy to remove a stigma that has been ingrained in our culture for thousands of years. In ancient civilizations, depression was believed to be connected with spiritual possession or spiritual concerns. Some so-called treatments can be quite brutal. Bloodletting is one example, and starvation another. Despite the Enlightenment making mental illness more understandable, discrimination against people with these conditions continued. Wulf Rossler, a psychiatrist, wrote that “the most prominent stereotypes around the mentally ill presume danger, unpredictability, and unreliability.” Institutionalization was used for controlling and punishing those who did not conform to these standards, especially women. A paper by the Oshkosh Scholar explains that women with severe symptoms were later diagnosed as insane for reasons like religious excitement, epilepsy and suppressed periods. “Did these women really need to be admitted into asylums or was their admission an indication of their inability to control their lives?”
The mid-1900s were the first time mental illness stigmatization was examined with books such as the 1963 Stigma: Notes for the Management of Spoiled Identity. Despite this, treatment was questioned. Rossler stated that “Overall, 1960s and 1970s were filled with an anti-psychiatry attitude. Blaming psychiatry as being repressive and coercive and more harmful than helpful to patients”
Although Gen X started accessing treatment on more consumer-empowered terms than before, mental health professionals still have biases about helping. Caitlin, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist, shares her experiences as a Gen Xer in In Our Blood, her memoir. Billings, who had survived an eating disorder and was subject to sexual assault in college, was taken into custody near her home.
She says, “It was really traumatizing.” I tried to minimize it. “This happens to many people,” I thought. People with trauma are often even worse. She just needed to get on with my life. Despite being a therapist, she did not seek treatment. Instead, she took a week away, cried a lot, then returned to work. She ended up becoming suicidal after the incident caused her debilitating post-traumatic Stress disorder. She was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She spent many years with two people as she managed her mental illness. The woman who struggled privately with the issues and the successful outwardly wealthy therapist.
Experts now recognize that mental illness is a common part of human development. According to the CDC, more than half of Americans will experience a mental disorder or illness in their lifetime. 1 in 5 children has or has had a debilitating psychological illness. Accessing help is also becoming more common: The National Institutes of Health data shows that 52.9 million Americans had a mental disorder in 2020, and that 24.3 million of those received mental health services.
Billings observed millennials entering the workforce from 2010 to 2020 and noticed a shift. She says, “They were coming into the environment and starting to talk out.” I was amazed at how open they were about their struggles and how it needed to be different. We need to be non-stigmatizing in how we talk about our clients.”
Billings received a call from school regarding her eldest son, a member Gen Z, who was 12 years old at the time. Billings says that her eldest child had attempted suicide and was cutting. She didn’t know until the school counselor called. “I took my child into the emergency room, and they were admitted to hospital — it was a very overwhelming experience. It was a moment of reckoning for me. “What’s my generational training in this?
COVID-19 made it easy for people to talk about their mental health even if they were not used to doing so. A 2021 survey of 2,100 Americans found that 81% had at least one sign of depression. Younger adults (18-24) were more likely to report poor or fair mental health. A U.S. surgeon General issued an advisory regarding the “youth mental illness crisis”.
The pandemic is not the only issue. Mental health is an important topic for young people. Since 1995, the APA has been compiling Stress in America reports. Wright states that “Year after YEAR, younger adults always report highest levels of stress.” Each generation of Americans has experienced unique stressors. These include the Great Depression, the reality and fear of being drafted by baby boomers, nuclear war for Gen X, and the reverberating consequences of Sept. 11. Gen Z, on the other hand, has concerns about climate change and mass shootings as well as political stratification.
What has changed in the lives of young people who have been stressed for many decades?
As teenagers, millennials started to share their experiences online through AIM, LiveJournal and MySpace. Gen Z has its own social media outlets, such as Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. Wright states that social media is essential for the mass of information and cultural messages people consume.
It’s not easy. There is a delicate balance between information and misinformation, increasing awareness versus increasing stress. Janelle Peifer is a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at University of Richmond. She founded the Center for Inclusive Therapy + Wellness. You can think of it as doomscrolling and falling into self-harm groups. Social media creates more visibility around major existential issues like climate change. Peifer states that Gen Z is more exposed to stressors via media and social media.
Social media, on the other hand has made it easier for young people to find support and information through social media. This is often happening from people just like them. Sutton states that TikTok allows you to talk directly with people your age and offer advice. You don’t need to have 12 years of education, a doctorate, and all the amazing experience to offer tips and tricks. It’s much easier to get to know someone than to read a 400-page book on cognitive behavioral therapy.” Teens have a bad reputation for self diagnosing, but they turn to these resources when they feel helpless or are unable to ask for it.
Peifer says Gen Z-ers are more likely to name and identify their mental health issues. She says, “So, while the actual presence or severity of mental health-related concerns may not be greater — but open and transparent discussion of these issues may be higher.” This affects their attitude to school, work and treatment.
Younger clients are more open to seeking mental health services such as counseling or therapy. This is because they tend to be more authentic and challenge traditional therapy norms. Billings claims that her Gen Z clients, as well as some millennials, want a relationship that’s not structured. No more old boundaries, such as no calls beyond therapy sessions and keeping things personal, are being abandoned. Billings states, “They want to me to cuss and they want me say off-the-cuff things.” She also said that Gen Z clients are open for suggestions and intervention. They want to understand why I am suffering from PTSD. Let’s look at the DSM-5. I want to know how I fit the criteria.