In early December, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory to highlight the urgent need to address our country’s youth mental health crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a detriment to the mental and physical well-being of people from all age ranges, but, as Murthy’s address pointed out, no age demographic has been more affected than the so-called Generation Z, or Gen Z, a group that typically encompasses those born in the mid-to-late 1990s to those born around 2010. It appears the Gen Z rarely seeking help for mental health challenges is problematic.

“Mental health challenges in children, adolescents, and young adults are real and widespread. Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade,” Murthy said. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic further altered their experiences at home, school, and in the community, and the effect on their mental health has been devastating. The future well-being of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation.”

As Murthy mentioned, this is hardly a concern that emerged solely out of the pandemic. Just how pervasive are these challenges for Gen Z — and what are the driving forces behind them? 

Digging Deeper into Gen Z’s Mental Health Concerns

Management consulting firm McKinsey & Company conducted a series of interviews and consumer surveys that indicated significant differences among generations regarding life satisfaction.

Gen Z reported the least positive outlook, including lower levels of emotional and social well-being than their older counterparts. One in 4 Gen Z respondents said that they felt more emotionally distressed, a number nearly double the levels reported by both millennial and Gen X respondents (13% each). 

The results found that Gen Z respondents were more likely than either Gen Xers or baby boomers to have been diagnosed with a behavioral health condition. They were also two to three times more likely than individuals of those other generations to report thinking about, planning, or attempting suicide in the 12-month period spanning late 2019 to late 2020.

On top of that, 58% of Gen Z respondents reported two or more unmet social needs — such as income, employment, education, food, housing, and social support — compared with just 16% of those from older generations.

All these findings indicate that it’s particularly important for Generation Z to have timely, widely available access to behavioral healthcare. 

But even if it’s accessible, they’re often not seeking it.

Why Gen Z Is Less Likely to Pursue Treatment

According to McKinsey’s findings, those in Generation Z are 1.6 to 1.8 times more likely than millennials to report not seeking treatment for a behavioral health condition. Factors for not pursuing professional intervention include:

  • Disengagement from their healthcare
  • Affordability
  • Developmental stage
  • Stigma associated with mental health or substance use disorders within their social circle

More members of Gen Z than any other group also fell into the less-engaged segment, meaning that they feel less in control of their health, are less health-conscious, and are less proactive after maintaining good health. One-third of Gen Z respondents are in the least-engaged category, reporting the lowest motivation to improve their health and the least comfort discussing any potential challenges with their doctors.

Affordability — or even the perception of what’s considered affordable — may be the biggest barrier to treatment for Gen Z. Many behavioral health providers don’t accept insurance, and 1 in 4 Gen Z respondents said that they couldn’t afford mental health services.

Stigma is another major driver of avoiding treatment. Many Gen Z members rely on family members for transportation or health insurance and may want to avoid discussing behavioral health topics, a factor that is especially relevant for racial and ethnic minorities. 

What Gen Z Is Comfortable Turning to for Help

It may come as a surprise that Gen Z respondents are one to four times more likely than those from older generations to use the emergency room. They are also two to three times more likely to report using crisis services or behavioral health urgent care.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, social media and digital tools are big for Gen Z, which accounts for nearly 75% of Crisis Text Line’s users. Many in Gen Z said that their first step in managing a behavioral health challenge is going to TikTok or Reddit for advice from their peers. 

What can providers do to make Gen Z more likely to seek help? A user-centered design approach is a must, and mobile accessibility is also vital. Gen Z also values diversity, so offering a more racially and ethnically diverse workforce and culturally relevant tools is important.

Finally, we must do better in educating this generation that mental health is just as important as physical health. A holistic approach that embraces the behavioral, physical, and social elements of health can go a long way.

About Timberline Knolls

Timberline Knolls is a residential treatment center located on 43 beautiful acres just outside Chicago, offering a nurturing recovery environment for women and girls age 12 and older who are struggling with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health conditions. An adult partial hospitalization program (PHP) is available for step-down and for women to directly admit. By serving with uncompromising care, relentless compassion, and an unconditional joyful spirit, we help our residents and clients help themselves in their recovery. For more information, please visit www.timberlineknolls.com. 

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