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Generation Z is Waging a Battle Against Depression, Addiction and Hopelessness

September 8, 2022
Caryl M. Stern
New research reveals the depth of the mental health crisis among our youth. Before it gets worse, we must listen, learn and lead on solutions to help

Whenever disaster strikes – through war, famine, acts of terror or natural calamity – the first images that fill our screens are often those of traumatized kids.

In the urgency of those moments, we feel compelled to help.

But what happens when a crisis unfolds in slower motion, not over days or weeks, but years? Do we respond with the same urgency?

New research on Generation Z, those born between 1997 and 2012, reveals the alarming depth of the youth mental health crisis unfolding in our country in the wake of COVID-19.

Confronting the Crisis in Youth Mental Health
New research from the Walton Family Foundation and Murmuration shows that more members of Generation Z are grappling with mental health issues than people from older generations.

The research from the Walton Family Foundation and Murmuration, conducted by John Della Volpe and Social Sphere, shows that more members of Generation Z are grappling with mental health issues than people from older generations.

Among the findings:

  • Gen Z (42%) is about twice as likely as Americans over 25 (23%) to battle depression and feelings of hopelessness. 
  • Gen Z is three times as likely (18% to 5%) as Americans over 25 to say their challenges are so severe that they thought they might be better off dead.
  • More than half of Zoomers (52%) know someone battling depression.
  • 1 in 4 have someone close to them dealing with drug addiction.
  • 1 in 5 know someone who has died by suicide.

The poll’s findings reflect the corrosive, compounding damage COVID-19 has inflicted on youth who were already struggling before the pandemic.

The closure of schools, disruption of social routines, family illnesses, death or job loss, extended periods of isolation – those are but a few of the factors driving the surge in mental health distress.

The symptoms often go unnoticed, revealing themselves in awkward dinner table silences and closed bedroom doors. The pandemic has exacted a toll too heavy to ignore.

For people ages 10 to 24, suicide rates increased almost 60% between 2007 and 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescents rose 31% from 2019 to 2020, the CDC also reported.

During a crisis of this magnitude, inertia is our worst enemy.

WFF Executive Director Caryl M. Stern on mental health

I’ve spent much of my career working in disaster relief. Three words guide the response: Rescue. Recover. Rebuild.

With the pandemic, rescue came in the form of widely available and effective vaccines. Recovery began with reopened schools. Now, we must rebuild.

To do that, we need to confront the challenges our children face at every moment of their day – not just in school, but from the moment they wake up until their head hits the pillow at night.

We must take time to look at the whole world in which our kids now live – and listen closely to what our kids are saying about the impact of their lived experiences.

Amid the economic and social upheaval of the past two years, kids are struggling to recover lost academic skills. Broken social bonds remain fractured. Some children have lost homes. Others have lost hope.

One day, children are hanging out with friends. The next, they might be in quarantine and told it’s not safe to go outside.

We must learn from our kids and lead with purpose.

If there has been a silver lining in the past two years, it's that the pandemic has opened a window to reimagine education – the foundation of healthy development.

At the Walton Family Foundation, we are supporting communities and organizations finding innovative ways to foster mental and social well-being beyond the classroom.

In Birmingham, Alabama, parents, students, educators and community leaders formed the Birmingham Coalition for Student Mental Health to confront disparities in mental health supports for students in communities of color.

Fact: Gen Z and depression

The coalition of more than two dozen organizations – including parents, students and community advocates – created a Student Mental Health Policy Playbook with proposals to support well-being in schools, including a call for more on-campus mental health professionals.

The educators and researchers at Turnaround for Children, meanwhile, have created a Well-Being Index tool to hear directly, quickly and frequently from students about how they are feeling and functioning.

Educators collect data from students about their physical, social, psychological and emotional well-being, then use the data to support individual students and identify mental health trends across classes and schools.

And KIPP Public Charter Schools has launched an alumni network to help its 30,000 graduates with mental health, careers and finances. The network has created a National Alumni Impact Team that provides mental health resources including free counselling to help former students address the impacts of Covid-19.

No one organization, or sector of society, can do this work alone.

Everyone — parents, teachers, bus drivers, hall monitors, cafeteria workers, coaches, counselors, therapists, school board members, policymakers, community activists — has a responsibility to act and provide all children with opportunities to thrive.

Philanthropy can help start those conversations – and we welcome allies from all sectors to join in meeting this challenge on the scale it requires.

This article originally appeared in The 74 on Sept. 7, 2022.

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