What’s up with Generation Z? | Mental health

It’s a rite of passage for any new generation to be labelled lazy and feckless by their elders, and so it was for twentysomethings last week with the news that they are more likely to be out of work because of mental health problems.

Instead of taking seriously the idea that a mental health crisis was developing, it was far easier to re-ink some cliches about workshy snowflakes and generation sicknote. Such insults have been levelled at every generation, from those now labelled millennials, generation X, baby boomers and the silent generation, and even as far back as Horace and Aristotle in ancient times.

Yet perhaps there is something different happening with gen Z. One in three 18- to 24-year-olds now report symptoms indicating they have experienced a common mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety disorder, compared with one in four in 2000.

This figure was not the result of a quick and dirty snapshot poll. It was one result from a three-year research programme by the Resolution Foundation thinktank, funded by the Health Foundation charity. The researchers analysed longitudinal data to track answers to questions about symptoms such as difficulties with sleep.

The finding is backed up by evidence of high levels of mental ill health among young people, according to Charlie McCurdy, one of the report’s authors. “There are lots more young people being prescribed antidepressants,” he said, “as well as increases in self-harm, particularly for young adolescent women, and an increase in disability claims from young people.”

What could explain this? Is the rise simply the result of greater recognition of the signs of mental ill health, now that there is less stigma in admitting to having a problem?

Could there be something to the accusation that young people are less resilient, perhaps because of changes in parenting styles or schooling, or some other external factors? Or has the world just changed so rapidly that it has become more confusing and uncertain, more brutish, perhaps even a nastier place, and the new generations are bearing the brunt?

There is no shortage of potential culprits: the cost of living crisis, the Covid lockdowns, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the long-term effects of austerity, the climate crisis, pressure in schools, prejudice against minorities, the rise of social media and smartphones, the evaporating high street and the growing complexity of modern life.

“Mental health problems amongst young people have been increasing before the pandemic,” said Nil Guzelgun, head of policy and campaigns at Mind. “We saw a starker increase in 2017. So this isn’t simply because of the pandemic.

“We know that people with mental health problems find themselves stuck in low paid, insecure work. After the financial crisis we saw an increase in mental health problems immediately afterwards. We really need a concerted effort to address public mental health needs.”

The answers to these questions are not straightforward. Here, six people with experience of some of the issues give their views.

Daniel Wilsher,


Daniel Wilsher’s life changed when he was nine years old. “Dad was a heavy drinker but a wonderful human being. But he ended up taking his life. That was obviously an event which flipped my entire world upside down.”

Wilsher came to terms with his father’s death by developing the belief that the only person he could rely only was himself, that he needed to become responsible for his family’s happiness by becoming rich and successful, and that since his dad had died by suicide, he would too.

He moved up to secondary school “very driven, very ambitious”, and began to excel. He was an academic high achiever, musically talented, in the football, athletics and rugby teams, and was eventually made head boy. Everyone missed what he describes as “behavioural breadcrumbs”. “I was asking people for help, but through behaviour, not words,” he said.

Emotional outbursts and illicit cigarettes at secondary school turned into taking class A drugs at sixth-form college, writing songs about suicide and skipping three-quarters of his lessons. Daniel made it to his dream university, then dropped out in his third year and worked for six months until things fell apart.

“I went four years struggling with suicidal ideation and depression,” he said. Without support from his family, he wouldn’t have made it. “I rang my mum one time when things had got really bad and said, ‘I’m struggling.’ Just two words. And she could tell from the way I said it that I wasn’t great.”

She found him a therapist, but it took him four months to stop hating therapy. Finally, one day, he managed to articulate his problems. “I ended up speaking about some things I had never really told anyone,” he said. “I went home and ended up crying for half an hour. But afterwards I felt about 20kg lighter.” At the age of 27, after 11 months of therapy, he changed his life – he is now a mental health public speaker, giving talks to schools, colleges, universities and businesses. He also trains teachers in the use of safeguarding software to spot the signs of mental ill-health in children.

He was a finalist in Channel 4’s The Piano competition, and last year in 20 days he gave 100 talks about mental health to children at 63 schools.

“It’s a bit of a wild transformation,” he said. “The thing we often miss when it comes to supporting ourselves is the idea of service. We think about therapy, going to the gym, getting more sleep or more money. We focus on what we need.

“But we rarely ask ‘what I can give to someone else?’ If we can help a lady across the road who struggles with her shopping, and now she’s got three hours extra because it’s a long trip for her, we’re feeling gratitude, she’s smiling – and we feel more connected.”

He went from hopelessness to wanting to change the world. “For young people, the world at the moment is a very scary place. We can’t control any of that. But there are things we can do. I can control how much social media I use and how I’m looking after myself. And I can control my values and who I want to live as.”

Karen Hartley,


Karen Hartley sees a lot of people in their early 20s at her psychotherapy practice. “I deal with a lot of trauma, which I think underpins the anxiety and the depression that we see,” she said. People can often cope with a single issue, such as a relationship breakdown or financial worries, but can be overwhelmed when they have to deal with two things at the same time.

Support networks are a key to helping deal with some of the external issues, Hartley says. “We can’t change the cost of living and maybe the next months are going to be tough, but what are the things we can control? Have you got additional support? Have you been journaling? What does your support network look like?”

The main change Hartley has seen in her 10 years of practice is how her clients’ language and expectations have changed.

“People catastrophise a lot more now, compared with me when I first started,” she said. “I think young people underestimate their ability to deal with these things.”

Someone talking to her about a relationship breakdown might describe their problem by saying they “just don’t think they’ll survive”, she said. “They’ll be feeling really anxious about being in a loop, that they can’t jump off the merry-go-round. I’m in the chair with them and I feel ‘you’ll actually be OK’.”

Younger people are also more likely to self-medicate, she said, using folk remedies seen on social media. “People say, ‘I’ve seen this on TikTok and it’s a way to help my anxiety and stress’. People have access to so many things, but it’s not always beneficial.

“They do want quick fixes, instant remedies. They’ll say, ‘Can I just have hypnosis’? or ‘Can you just fix me the easiest way possible?’ But it can take three to six months, sometimes two years.”

Shoshanna Davis,

founder, work advice agency

Shoshanna Davis founded Fairy Job Mother in 2020 and has so far helped more than 20,000 young people figure out what employers want, and worked with companies and universities to help them understand the needs of the younger generation.

Mental ill health is manifesting in all kinds of ways that employers don’t necessarily spot, she said. “There’s themes that regularly come up – ‘our young employees are unmotivated, they’re disengaged, they’re entitled …’ – and lots of these things boil down to mental health.

“Ultimately, young people have done everything they’ve been told to do. They’ve gone to school, they’ve gone to university and now they are trying to get a job and can’t get one. Or they’ve got a job and they’re not progressing. That leads to disengagement and a lack of motivation.”

Perhaps some of this anxiety is induced by the catastrophic thinking identified by Hartley – an all-or-nothing perfectionism often created by pressure to get high exam grades.

Davis told of a young person she had helped who had accidentally sent an internal email to a customer. “From their perspective, it was absolute panic. They were devastated. Their manager said it was OK, and that these things happen. But this person was still thinking about it weeks and weeks later, almost waiting to be fired.”

The cost of living crisis and the “pandemic skip” – the sense that schoolchildren and students missed out on a chunk of time during the Covid lockdowns and were left in limbo – are other factors weighing more heavily on twentysomethings. Another is the mismatch between news of the UK’s skills and labour shortage and the difficulties they are having in finding a good job.

Davis said the young people she works with have struggled to get any job, in retail or hospitality, for example, and that graduate jobs are “so competitive”.

“Hope – having things to look forward to – definitely helps from a mental health perspective,” she said. “But a lot of people don’t have hope, because what are we working towards if we don’t have money to buy a house, if we don’t even have money to travel, if we’re ultimately not even in a job we enjoy, but in the first job we could find because we needed to pay the bills.”

Older generations’ opinion that people should just toughen up is “a little bit nasty”, Davis said. “Should we not want the best for the next generation of young people? The media has created lots of stereotypes and generalisations around gen Z. A bit of empathy just makes you a decent human being.”

Matilda Dunlop,


Matilda Dunlop believes social media saved her life. “People don’t understand that anyone who’s struggling can find a community online and share resources that work for them. Social media was huge for me. I 100% wouldn’t be alive without it, because it made me feel less alone.”

The 21-year-old was diagnosed with anxiety disorder at seven. “I always felt out of place in modern society,” they said. “The transition from primary school to secondary school is when my depression began to consume me, and I got diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder).”

Matilda went to university but became suicidal while there and was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder. She said the safety net of a personal independent payment and universal credit helped.

“[What helped me was] completely rejecting any notion of being part of the system, and accepting that and not forcing myself to go to uni or go to school or get a job, which doesn’t work for me very much. Finding myself through whatever means.

“We know poor mental health is not on the rise; it’s always been present. It’s just the new generation, which I guess I’m part of, simply being unable to repress it any more. It’s come to a breaking point, and that breaking point can be seen throughout the entire world, through social rights and social injustice and climate breakdown.”

Bobby Duffy,

generations expert

Prof Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, is sceptical about there being many real differences between the cohorts of people who have become known as gen Z or millennials.

“There is not very strong evidence about different levels of commitment to work among younger people today compared with the past,” he said. Instead, the whole of society has changed and now values work-life balance more. This is what he calls a “period effect” – the way society changes during a particular period.

“The long-term trend is for declining work hours across the population, not just among young people,” he said. “We’ve all got more interested in values and social purpose; it’s nonsense that this is just a gen Z-driven thing. Before that, it was supposed to be a milliennials-driven thing.”

It may sound like a repeat of Socrates’s complaint that children in ancient Greece loved luxury, had bad manners, were contemptuous of authority and didn’t stand up when their elders entered the room.

But there is more to it than that, Duffy said. “It doesn’t mean nothing has changed for young people, because there are these big period effects. They are going to be more susceptible to changes because they don’t have any other experience. But it’s not them driving it. They’re responding to it.”

One of the few real differences between generations is that people born in the late 1960s and early 70s – known as generation X – are more likely to die by suicide than those older or younger, though Duffy points out in his 2021 book Generations that even this pattern is dwarfed by differences in age, wealth and gender.

But if period effects have more impact on young people, how have they been affected by perhaps the biggest period shift of all, the invention of smartphones and social media? Jonathan Haidt, a professor of social psychology at New York University, argues in his book The Anxious Generation, out later this month, that the technological shift is behind the current mental health crisis, leaving children more sleep-deprived, with less social interaction, fragmented cognitive skills and prone to addictions.

Research published last week by Duffy’s team at King’s College showed that two-thirds of people in the UK also put most blame for the decline in young people’s mental health on social media. Respondents were split on whether the rise in mental illness is real, or due to more cases being identified. Of those who think the increase is real, 57% believe that young people face a tougher time, while 36% think young people are less resilient than their predecessors.

But there are some generational differences here, too – older generations are more likely to believe that gen Z are less resilient, while younger generations are more likely to think that there is a real increase. But the young are less likely to blame social media.

“For every complex problem, there is a simple answer that is wrong,” Duffy said. “It does seem to be the case that social media exposes the vulnerable. But it also has positive effects, and younger people are much more likely to say there are positive effects, although on balance they think it’s a net negative.”

Jennie Bristow,

parenting expert

If it’s hard for people in their 20s to deal with the pressures bearing down on them, it’s hard for their parents, too. Jennie Bristow, a reader in sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University and an associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent, said the younger generation had been “brutalised and indulged” as a consequence of the pandemic restrictions.

“Parents are in a bind,” she said. “You can’t fight the prevailing culture. You might have an idea as a parent that it’s really important for your kids to play outside when they’re little. But they can’t do that if there are no other children playing outside.”

Parents might also be worried about social media, but individually they didn’t have the power to solve it, she added.

Parents had been subjected to “an aggressive culture attempt” over the past 30 years to detach them from previous values, such as parental wisdom.

“The past is supposed to be all really bad and damaging. And the problem with that is it doesn’t give you any ballast – you’re subject to the whims of changing advice. So if you’re trying to raise your child, you’ve got a difficult and insecure foundation on which to do that.”

Bir yanıt yazın

E-posta adresiniz yayınlanmayacak. Gerekli alanlar * ile işaretlenmişlerdir