Learn / Unpacking the Rise in Mental Health Diagnoses Among Gen Z 

Unpacking the Rise in Mental Health Diagnoses Among Gen Z 

Kayla Gill
 April 18th, 2024|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Key Points

  • Studies show that nearly 42% of zoomers have a mental health diagnosis.
  • This is due to both increased mental health awareness and environmental stressors.
  • But psychologists believe Gen Z’s future is bright, thanks to their self-healing work.

Gen Z, the generation born between the mid-1990s and early 2010s, is experiencing a mental health crisis unlike any seen before. Studies show that nearly 42% of zoomers have a mental health diagnosis,1 compared to 29% of millennials and 20% of Gen Xers at the same age. This begs the question: Why are mental health diagnoses on the rise among Gen Z, and how can we better support this generation’s mental wellness?

Gen Z is a unique demographic, shaped by unprecedented societal shifts. They’re the first generation to grow up entirely in the digital age, constantly connected to an online world flooded with information and social comparison. They’ve grappled with global challenges ranging from economic crises to global warming to COVID-19, and witnessed political turmoil and societal unrest firsthand. 

Understanding the unique challenges this generation faces is key to understanding the state of their mental health.

Digital-Age Pressures

Social Media’s Impact

Gen Z’s constant immersion in the digital space, and especially in social media, poses some unique challenges to their mental well-being. Carefully curated online personas often make others feel less adequate by comparison. 

Gen Z mental health influencer Zach Gottlieb describes how this unrealistic picture of perfection can make zoomers feel less safe to be themselves:2

“On social media there’s so much pressure to put out a certain persona that’s curated, and isn’t vulnerable, and isn’t all of your moments, but only the moments you select for people to see. I feel like we’ve adopted that into our own lives, and we start practicing the same. We’re curating our lives and the moments we want to share with others. 

Young people are often judged by older generations for their social media use in ways that aren’t necessarily helpful. Rather than blaming them for something that’s a reality of their daily life, Gottlieb says we need to ask why social media is a problem.     

“For me, this comes from the comparison aspect. When you see people post all these things—whether it’s related to their bodies or things they’re showing off or places they’re going and experiences they’re having—when you see a lot of people doing a lot of cool and interesting things and looking great all the time, you might start to wonder, ‘Why am I not like this? Why am I not always looking perfect? Why am I not always going on these really cool adventures or trips or whatever it may be?’”

Effects of Social Media on Body Image and Self-Esteem

This isn’t an uncommon experience. Social media is changing how we see ourselves. One study found that 87% of women and 65% of men compare their bodies to images they see on social media,3 and that 50% of women and 37% of men compare themselves unfavorably.

In addition to its impact on self-esteem and body image, social media exacerbates mood disorders like anxiety and depression. And the fear of missing out (FOMO) that social media promotes makes zoomers feel even more anxious, isolated, and alone.

Information Overload

From an early age, Gen Z is bombarded with information about a world that’s constantly in flux. The 24/7 news cycle and neverending social media updates easily add up to information overload. This constant exposure to global issues—most of which are negative or alarming—often exceeds our human capacity to process large-scale tragedy. 

All of this overwhelm makes young people feel powerless. The pressure to keep up with the ever-changing digital landscape and be constantly “on” is mentally taxing. Interestingly, Gen Z adapts to this via what scientists call “clip thinking,”4 or the ability to remember the search for information more than the content itself. Researchers say this is a protective response that allows people to “‘leave’ the flow of information without feeling incomplete, and then “merge” into the stream again.”

Clip thinking is just one example of the informational demands on young people, which often far exceed their ability to cope. 

Societal and Environmental Factors

Beyond the digital realm, Gen Z’s mental health is shaped by broader environmental forces.

Economic Uncertainty

Gen Z’s mental health is affected by significant economic pressures. Entering the workforce during a time of economic uncertainty, many often into difficulty securing stable jobs, managing student loan debt, and affording basic necessities. This constant struggle for financial security makes it hard to focus on long-term life goals and prioritize well-being. Gen Z’s anxiety has real causes rooted in factors like unemployment and the rising cost of living.

Lance Fuquay, a recent graduate, describes the stressors zoomers are dealing with5 with as they enter the workforce: 

“There’s a ton that’s coming at you, and you’re thrust into it and we don’t really know what to do. Housing affordability, student loan debt, and just the constant political strife we have right now between the two parties…I think those are the biggest things I’ve seen.”

Climate Change Anxiety

Gen Z is the first generation to fully grasp the magnitude of the threats posed by climate change. This stress is so pervasive that Gen Z has been called “the climate generation;” their fears are referred to as “eco-anxiety.”6

An existential threat like climate change is especially overwhelming for young people, and affects their sense of security and hope for the future. This intense worry about the state of the planet and what it means for their future makes zoomers feel anxious, helpless, and angry. 

Academic and Career Pressures

Gen Z faces intense pressure to excel academically7 and secure their futures in an increasingly competitive job market. Their fears are fueled by a number of obstacles: rising college costs, the perception of limited job opportunities, and the ever-evolving demand for new skill sets as technology advances.

The emphasis on gaining impressive academic achievements and entering high-paying careers can lead to age-inappropriate stress and feelings of inadequacy. This fear of failure and the pressure to live up to societal expectations significantly affects zoomers’ mental health. The “quarter-life crisis8 young people often experience requires them to learn that there are diverse pathways to success, and prioritize their emotional well-being as part of their academic and career goals.

Shifts in Family Dynamics and Social Life

While technology can be a valuable tool for connection, it tends to push us further into the digital space and away from the real world. This is also true for social interactions. 

Today, people communicate more online than they do offline.9 This has both positive and negative effects: while less nonverbal communication lowers the quality of interactions, online spaces also create new opportunities to form connections, some of which are genuinely fulfilling. 

Gen Z’s mental health awareness and immersion in the digital landscape also affect the way they relate to their parents—and how they’ll parent in the future. Child and adolescent psychology expert Dr. Rebecca Berry says, “Gen Z are far more conscious of mental health issues—and more able to articulate them—than their parents were.10 That can better equip them to identify their issues with their parents, and the causes of their developmental trauma. 

While some critics frame zoomers as entitled kids who don’t respect their parents enough,11 their willingness to confront issues positions them to interrupt cycles of intergenerational trauma. Many zoomers are choosing to delay parenthood (or forego it altogether). But those who do decide to have children are likely to parent with more emotional maturity than previous generations. “There will be less wounded adults walking the earth,” says Bonnie Compton, a child and adolesecent therapist. 

Access to Mental Health Resources

Increased Awareness and Diagnosis

The rise in mental health diagnoses among Gen Z is worrying. But an increase in diagnoses is in part due to an increase in awareness. More people are in therapy, and more people see mental health as a primary concern.12

As Gen Z continues to lower stigma around mental health, they’re more likely to seek treatment and receive diagnoses. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, many people find their diagnosis empowering,13 because it helps them identify their problems—and is often the first step to solving them. In a stigmatized view, perceiving a diagnosis as a personal failing deters some people from seeking treatment. But, “This perspective can be reframed by viewing a mental health diagnosis as a framework for establishing a treatment plan,” says Ashley Santangelo, who was diagnosed with panic disorder. 

The increase in diagnoses doesn’t just signal a worsening of mental health within the population. It also reflects a positive shift towards seeking help and normalizes addressing mental health concerns. It also means Gen Z needs accessible mental health resources to support the growing demand for services.

Challenges in Accessing Mental Health Care

While mental health literacy is increasing, Gen Z still faces significant challenges in accessing quality care. One major barrier is affordability. The high cost of therapy sessions,14 along with limited insurance coverage for mental health services, can put professional help financially out of reach for young people. A shortage of qualified mental health professionals,15 especially in rural areas, also limits the availability of care.

Barriers to treatment can worsen mental health conditions—and discourage people from getting help altogether. More low-cost options and better insurance coverage for mental healthcare can expand access to healing for young people who need it. 

Coping Mechanisms and Resilience Building

To address their collective mental health challenges, Gen Z will need to learn healthy coping strategies to navigate the complexities of living in an uncertain world. 

One aspect of this is community support. Open communication within families, supportive peer networks, and school programs can help zoomers create the sense of belonging they’re missing. 

People of all generations have seen drastic mental health improvements through digital detox, and Gen Z is no exception. Research shows, for example, that reducing social media use significantly improves body image16 in teens and young adults. Setting boundaries around screen time, engaging more in offline activities, and focusing on real-world connections can combat the negative mental health impacts of being hyperconnected all the time. 

Mindfulness practices can also help. Techniques like meditation and deep breathing can give young people tools to manage stress effectively. These simple practices go a long way in the ability to self-regulate emotions, and can help zoomers build emotional resilience to support them throughout life.

The Role of Institutions in Supporting Gen Z

Educational Systems

Schools play a huge role in supporting Gen Z mental health. Academic environments shape a large part of young people’s lives, and their well-being directly impacts their learning, engagement, and success.

Gen Z, of course, is aware of this. In fact, they see mental health as a primary concern in education17 and are asking for better support services. According to national polls, zoomers “believe individualized learning plans, increased teacher pay, more social, emotional and mental health support, and smaller class sizes would make the biggest impact.”

By expanding access to mental health resources like counseling services, workshops, and support groups, schools and universities have the opportunity to positively affect change. Integrating mental health education into school curricula empowers students with knowledge about mental health conditions, coping mechanisms, and available resources to make sure zoomers have access to the support they need.

Gen Z students also cite bullying as a main issue affecting their mental health—and cyberbullying on social media, which impacts 1 in 3 students,18 only presents more opportunities for problems. Research backs this up: a series of studies on bullying in schools found that “the risk of depression in children and adolescents who were bullied was 2.77 times higher than that of those who were not bullied.” This dynamic doesn’t just affect victims of bullying. The same report also found that “the risk of depression in bullying individuals was 1.73 times higher than that in nonbullying individuals.”19

Creating supportive school environments means taking measures to prevent bullying, encouraging strong relationships between students and educators, and taking real steps to promote inclusion. 

Government and Policy Changes

Addressing the mental health crisis Gen Z is facing requires not just individual and community-based solutions, but also systemic changes at a higher level.

Increased funding for mental health services20 would allow for the expansion of mental health programs, the training and recruitment of more mental health professionals, and the development of better, more accessible treatment models. “Throughout the world, mental health remains a neglected priority, low on the agenda of policy makers and funders at the national and international levels,” say professionals who are calling for change.

Policy changes that expand mental health insurance coverage remove financial barriers for people seeking help. And investing in preventative measures like community outreach and mental health education programs in schools means more young people will have the knowledge and resources to proactively manage their mental well-being.

Together, we can create a more supportive environment where Gen Z has the opportunities they need to thrive.

Finding Ground in a Groundless World

Gen Z is undoubtedly dealing with some extremely large-scale challenges. From the pressures of the digital age to economic uncertainty, this generation navigates a constantly changing landscape that seriously impacts their well-being. But the increase in diagnoses we see also reflects a positive shift. More open conversations are encouraging people to seek help. Even from their isolated corners, zoomers are collectively creating a culture of healing.

Gen Z is far exceeding previous generations’ knowledge of mental health, but they need to learn how to thrive in spite of the complex realities they face. Addressing this crisis requires a comprehensive effort. By working together, we can make sure mental health receives the priority it deserves, and support this generation as they shape the world of tomorrow.

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