When I typed “Why is Generation Z…” into Google, the first autofill suggestion was “so soft.” The second was “so sensitive.” Next was “entitled,” followed by “different,” “anxious” and “stressed.”
It feels like Gen Z — which is largely agreed to include anyone born from 1997-2012 — is quickly surpassing Millennials as the least-liked generation.
Article after article details how damaged we are by any number of metrics, most using outdated phrases like “Ok boomer” we are supposed to find relatable. We’ve been called the lonely generation, the pessimistic generation, the saddest generation. For all of these various issues, there has been one essential culprit: social media.
There are certain parts of this narrative that I really see myself in. I’m probably what someone of an older generation would call a liberal snowflake and am fairly active on Instagram and Snapchat. Especially in high school, I was very preoccupied with tangible markers of success like grades and test scores, supposedly another marker of our generation.
Even on the statistical level, I seem to fit in. Studies have shown we’re less likely to get our driver’s license, date or spend as much time with friends; I didn’t get my license until I was 18 and didn’t have my first boyfriend until I was 20.
But there are other Gen Z stereotypes that I really don’t connect to at all. For example, I don’t see this sad, social-media obsessed loner in myself, my friends or my classmates. I talked to Nick Brdar, the president of the Wolverine Support Network, about my concerns. He struggled with his mental health earlier in high school, but by the time Nick got to college, he was looking for a way to maintain his positive mental state. Through WSN, he’s been able to not only help himself but also channel his longtime passion into a type of advocacy to help others. So, of course, he’s heard the narrative about Gen Z before.
“I definitely struggle with it because … social media does have harmful impacts, especially on teenagers’ and adolescents’ mental health,” Nick said. “So there’s that. But I also am well aware that social media isn’t the one thing causing people’s mental health to look differently in this generation. … When an article is portraying that as the full story, it’s definitely frustrating to me.”
We have a lot to be anxious about — a global pandemic, the threat of global warming, conflict in the Middle East, an economic downturn as we get ready to enter the workforce — but I’d say we’re remarkably well adjusted, all things considered. Of course, there are the Greta Thunbergs and David Hoggs of the world who are already creating change on the international level, but even in my own small social circles, I’m constantly amazed by acts of resilience in the face of adversity. There was my roommate who aced her test after contracting COVID-19 and quarantining in her bedroom. Or my friend who (like myself) has received one internship rejection after another this year, each time taking a moment to readjust and then crafting a new cover letter. It feels like the articles I read talk about all the times we fall down without saying how many times we get back up.
Part of that resilience could be tied to our willingness to seek out mental health resources. Mental Health Awareness Month, which happens in May, began in 1949 but didn’t get widespread attention until much later. In the early 2000s, the focus of mental health-focused organizations like the Mental Health Foundation shifted from solely addressing those with diagnosed mental health issues to promoting positive mental health for all.
By virtue of growing up in an epoch of periodic economic and geopolitical crises, our generation has taken to mental health awareness more than any generation before. We’re more likely to self-report as anxious and stressed but also more likely to seek help.
While it is possible that we really are the stressed and depressed generation, another possibility is that Gen Z is merely more willing to open up about their mental health. Mental health issues have existed in every generation, but our awareness today is causing us to treat things that, in the past, would have been ignored. As Nick pointed out during our call, everyone experiences change in their mental health throughout their lives; what is important is how we decide to address that change.
Not only are we more likely to seek help, but we’re also more open to talking about it than previous generations. Especially in the past year, my roommates and I have talked frequently about our mental states. I’ve been out to dinner with friends more than once when the conversation has turned to whether or not we like our therapists.
Millennials got the reputation for putting only the most beautiful, well-lit versions of their lives on social media, though now it feels like Gen Z is opening up a small corner of the internet where people are willing to drop the facade. That corner is the home of crying selfies (of which I have 12 in my camera roll), self-deprecating memes and, sometimes, admissions that we’re not ok.
I see friends and classmates and acquaintances frequently posting about the importance of mental health on social media. A lot of the time, it’s graphics that list statistics or resources you can look to or places to donate, but what’s struck me is how many people are sharing their personal stories. I’ve seen paragraphs of text detailing peoples’ struggles after losing a parent or a job. I know someone who made an entire Instagram account to document their recovery.
And, of course, that openness is amazing in so many ways, but it does perpetuate the narrative. There’s no way to know how much of the cultural perception is driven by fact and how much of it we’re writing ourselves, but if we kept our problems behind closed doors, we might have a very different reputation.
Or maybe this narrative is completely accurate, and I’ve deluded myself into believing that we’re being misrepresented in order to disassociate from this sad, anxious image.
At this point, my head begins to spin, hearing this repeated story, trying to find my place in it, trying to determine if I’m wrong or if the narrative is wrong or how you can try to characterize an entire generation in the first place. It’s caused me to keep constant tabs on my mental health, almost as a form of hypochondria. Am I having a bad day, or is this a sign that I’m perpetually unhappy? Is my stress level proportionate to what’s going on, or am I suffering from anxiety?
When I sat down in front of my computer screen for my first therapy session last September, my therapist asked me a deceptively hard question: Why are you here?
I really had to think about it. My pretense for starting therapy in the first place was that I occasionally get anxious, and I wanted a better way to handle it, but there was more than that. I wanted my therapist to give me a check-up, to label and diagnose anything that was wrong with me and make it go away.
A few weeks into my sessions, she pinpointed exactly why I’d come better than I ever could: “It sounds like you think there’s something wrong with you,” she said. Yes, I did, and sometimes I still do. Constantly hearing that I am a member of a mentally ill generation was taking away my ability to distinguish between negative emotions and psychological ill health. It was causing me to be fearful of any negative emotion I felt, as if acknowledging that I felt sad or angry or fearful would make me a part of this narrative I wanted to avoid. Over the ensuing months, I worked on allowing myself to accept emotions not as a sign of damage or a piece of a narrative, but as a normal part of life.
My biggest problem with the narrative isn’t that it’s inaccurate, but that it’s incomplete. It proposes that 58% of us experience symptoms of depression and 54% experience feelings of anxiety as if those are stagnant, unchangeable facts. It doesn’t leave room for growth or people like Nick who are trying to make a difference. Considering that we’re talking about a group of people currently between the ages of nine and 23, I would hope we still have some growing to do. I asked Nick what Gen Z’s narrative would look like if he could write it himself:
“I know our generation is a really strong and resilient generation,” he said. “I see people overcoming struggles literally day in and day out. While those articles are kind of focusing on the increased rates or on how depressed or anxious our generation is, I also see the flip side of that coin.
“And (I see) that we’re also seeing a generation who’s not afraid to have these conversations, who’s not afraid to reach out when they need extra help. And I think our society is getting to a point where we’re going to be able to start seeing that as a sign of strength rather than a sign of weakness.”
Narratives can have a huge impact on the way we see ourselves. A study from 2019 showed that members of Gen Z were starting to believe that they were more entitled and narcissistic than other generations, regardless of the fact that the study found only a marginal increase in narcissistic traits within our generation compared to others.
I hope we aren’t absorbing this narrative as well, stifling ourselves before we’re able to figure it out on our own.
But maybe that’s what a therapist is for.
Statement Correspondent Lane Kizziah can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.