- The coronavirus pandemic is having a notably negative impact on the mental health of Gen Zers, according to several studies. Pew Research defines the oldest of Gen Zers as turning 23 this year.
- Gen Zers were already dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression before the global health crisis.
- As the most socially-driven generation, Gen Zers have been surrounded these past few years by news of mass shootings, deportations, the opioid crisis, and rising suicide rates.
- Those issues have had a severe impact on Gen Zers, and the pandemic has compounded their stress. Many have had to deal with schools going online, disappearing job prospects, and uncertain financial situations.
- On top of this, many Gen Zers are taking the lead in protests against police brutality and racism.
- In spite of the negative mental health implications, many Gen Zers have turned to creative pursuits to help them cope with the historic crisis. They have expressed interest in helping others cope, too.
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Ansley Cestare, 16, said the start of the coronavirus pandemic felt like a personal test.
Her school in Flagler County, Florida, went remote in mid-March. Then the weeks-long quarantine kicked in.
“At first, my mental health wasn’t doing too good, and it was just the struggle of being locked up in my room all the time and not being able to go out and see people,” she told Business Insider. “That was the most stressful part because I didn’t know if I was going to get out of it.”
Even as states reopen and the anxieties of lockdowns slowly ease, one thing still looms in the back of her mind: The uncertainty of what will happen next.
She’s not the only young American dealing with this crisis.
The oldest members of Cestare’s generation are turning 23 this year. Called “Generation Z,” they have endured a historic pandemic that yanked them from their educations, and have witnessed the nation barrel toward an economic crisis that’s wiped out millions of jobs just at they prepare to enter the workforce.
Sandwiched in between these crises are the nationwide protests that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a movement largely led by Gen Z. With so much pressure to deal with at once, it’s no wonder numerous studies have found that the mental health of these young adults is in a swift decline.
Business Insider has taken a deep dive into the emotional state of Gen Z in the middle of one of the most pivotal years of their lives so far. We compiled data from the nonprofit organization DoSomething Strategic, the study platform StuDocu, the American Psychological Association, and the creative app VSCO. We also spoke to psychiatrists and Gen Zers themselves to gauge how they feel about the biggest news events of 2020.
Keep reading to learn more about the state of Gen Z during the global health crisis and the George Floyd protests, and their concerns for the impact these may have on their personal and professional futures.
The coronavirus pandemic is the first major historical event that many American Gen Zers have experienced.
The oldest group of Gen Z is turning 23 this year, meaning they were just 11 years old when the Great Recession hit in 2008. At the time of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the oldest Gen Zers were just 3 years old. Generational experts widely consider 9/11 the natural dividing point between millennials and Gen Z.
This means that the pandemic is the first major historical event that Gen Zers are old enough to contend with. They can see, understand, and process the impact the virus is having on the world around them.
“This generation is being exposed to hardship that is very hard to process at a younger age,” psychiatrist Dr. Mimi Winsberg, the cofounder and chief medical officer of digital mental health company Brightside, told Business Insider. “It may have more impact than the person who’s able to put it this context with other events as they’ve experienced.”
As the most social-driven generation, Gen Zers were already acutely aware of crises in the world around them.
Gen Z is arguably the most socially-tuned generation to ever exist, but the ease of keeping up with everything that is happening in the world via the internet has side effects. A 2018 APA study on American stressors found that news items are regularly sources of stress for young adults.
The news cycle of the past five years has frequently included gun violence, family separations at the US and Mexico border, the opioid crisis, climate change, and high-profile sexual assault cases (largely brought into the spotlight thanks to the #MeToo movement).
Mass shootings in particular have been Gen Z’s chief stressor, the APA survey found. Around 75% of Gen Zers reported this as a significant source of stress with 72% saying they are stressed about even the possibility of a school shooting. Only 62% of adults pointed this as a source of stress.
(There hasn’t been a school shooting since the pandemic began, because schools have closed their physical locations throughout the nation. Bloomberg News characterized the sharp drop in mass shootings in the US as the “one good thing from the pandemic.”)
Being constantly plugged in meant Gen Zers were significantly more likely than previous generations to rate their mental health as merely ‘fair’ or even ‘poor.’
The 2018 APA study revealed that 91% of Gen Zers between ages 18 and 21 experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom because of stress in the past month, compared to 74% of adults overall. It also found that Gen Zers are more likely than other generations to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and to report that they have been diagnosed with depression.
Interestingly, female Gen Zers are nearly twice as likely than their male peers to report fair or poor mental health, per the APA study. And that’s not just prevalent among Gen Z – Business Insider reporter Hillary Hoffower, citing another 2018 APA study, previously reported that female millennials are more likely to be anxious than their male peers.
It shows that Gen Zers are following closely in millennial footsteps, as they get ready to inherit the world that millennials are still struggling to conquer.
But at the same time, the study revealed that overall, younger generations are more likely to receive or have received therapy or treatment from a psychologist or other mental health professional. This indicates that, despite it all, Gen Zers and millennials are actively helping get rid of the stigma often associated with seeking out help.
The pandemic has made things worse: Less than 20% of Gen Zers said they felt ‘happy’ often in the past few months.
Social-learning network StuDocu polled over 1,600 students between March 24 and April 17 (the height of the pandemic), and found that 62.4% of Gen Zers said isolating during COVID-19 has worsened their mental health.
The top emotions for those polled were stress, frustration, anxiety, and loneliness. Only 18.5% reported that they often feel happy during the pandemic.
Michael Pankowski, a sophomore at Harvard University, told Business Insider that over the past two months he has felt “overwhelmed” and “distraught” by how many lives have been lost to the coronavirus, even as his own world has been knocked off balance.
He said that in addition to the stress of the pandemic, his school closing also had an emotional impact on him, as it happened with such haste.
On March 10, Harvard students received notice that they had to vacate their dorms in just five days. Pankowski returned to his hometown of Rockville, Maryland. He recalls the dorm evacuation as a “whirlwind.”
“With one email, we learned we had just five days to say goodbye to all of our friends,” Pankowski said. “I feel particularly bad for the seniors, who had the end of their college careers so suddenly cut short, not knowing when or if they’d ever get to see their friends and classmates again all in one place.
Because many Gen Zers still live with their families, worries about their parents during the coronavirus have taken center stage.
Most millennials have parents who are either Gen X (turning 40 to 55 this year) or baby boomers (turning 56 to 74). This means that many of their parents are at high risk of catching the coronavirus.
Business Insider’s Hayley Peterson talked to many millennials who were worried about the health of their parents and voiced frustration in trying to make them to stay inside. Hoffower separately reported that many millennials are stressed out about their parents’ possible risk for infection.
At the same time, DoSomething Strategic found Gen Zers are experiencing different stress: Almost half are worried about their family’s ability to afford basic needs and pay bills. Gen Zers were already worried about this before the pandemic.
The 2018 APA study found that 63% of Gen Zers ages 15 to 17 reported they were stressed because of their families not having enough money. Three in 10 Gen Zers reported debt and unstable housing as a source of their stresses, while three in 10 reported hunger.
Schools moving online are making Gen Zers worry they’ll fall behind academically.
Marnix Broer, CEO of the learning network StuDocu, found that students are now studying later at night than before. StuDocu also found that students are taking more breaks, and they listed their families and pets as distractions.
At the same time, many students were happy to have control over their environments by working at home, with nearly half listing food accessibility as being one of the top benefits.
Meanwhile, Mary Noel, a director at DoSomething Strategic, told Business Insider that there was a “deep sadness” coming from younger Gen Zers, especially those in high school, as milestone events such as prom and homecoming have been canceled.
“Most people, I don’t think, have the structure in place to really deal with this student shift to work from home, let alone throwing this on young people, who now have to realize time management of when to get schoolwork done in the day, without having face-to-face support from teachers and other students,” she said.
Meanwhile, college students in particular are not happy about paying thousands of dollars for a virtual education.
College students already felt that their universities did not do a good job of managing their mental health. In fact, StuDocu found that nearly 60% of students polled felt their university either sporadically helped them manage their mental health, or not at all, before the pandemic hit.
DoSomething Strategic also noted that students, both in high school and in college, are doubting the quality of an online education and miss in-person learning. As high schoolers are worried this could set their learning back and impact their college prospects, college students, in particular, are not happy that they are paying thousands of dollars for an online education.
Universities across the nation are dealing with students who are calling for partial and full refunds, arguing that online learning is not as effective as in-person learning.
At the same time, some students were worried that the new economic situation they’ve found themselves in – with their parents losing jobs, or their primary source of income disappearing, they may no longer be able to afford college in the fall.
Pankowski told Business Insider that he feels online learning is “unfair across the board” and that many students might not have the resources to succeed in distant learning.
“I’m lucky enough to have a personal computer and good WiFi in order to complete my work, but I know many of my classmates do not,” Pankowski said.
The Gen Zers who are graduating college this year will have to contend with many of the issues millennials who graduated during the 2008 financial crisis dealt with.
The coronavirus has plunged the United States economy to historical lows and toward an impending recession. This means that Gen Zers who are graduating right now may face the same fate as the millennials who graduated during the Great Recession – long-term negative health and financial consequences.
Business Insider previously reported on an April 2019 Stanford study that found students who graduate into and start working in a recession often deal with higher unemployment rates and lower starting salaries.
Graduating at such a time also causes stagnation in economic prosperity that can linger for 10 to 15 years. This can lead to long-term negative impacts, according to both the Stanford study and a separate January 2020 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Each indicated that graduating into a recession could, at worst, even lead to an earlier death.
Stanford referred to these deaths as “deaths of despair.” These deaths are mostly related to heart disease, lung cancer, and liver disease, as well as drug and alcohol abuse.
Recession graduates’ personal lives take a hit as well. Both studies found them less likely to be married, more likely to be divorced, and more likely to be childless.
Many Gen Zers have also found themselves unemployed during this time, and are worried about how they will survive without a steady income.
In 2018, the American Psychological Association and the Harris Poll surveyed 3,458 respondents over the age of 18 living in the United States. The organizations also interviewed teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17.
The study found that 81% of Gen Zers between the ages of 18 and 21 reported money as causing significant stress in their lives, with 77% saying the same about work.
Now that many are out of work – and, as a result, running out of money – those stress levels are bound to rise. Pew Research found that one in four American workers between the ages of 16 and 24 lost their jobs between February and May, Business Insider previously reported.
The hospitality industry, which employs many young people, took a massive hit once restaurants closed due to social distancing measures. In the past six weeks, over 44 million Americans have filed for unemployment. DoSomething Strategic found that 40% of those between the ages of 18 and 25 have personally lost their jobs.
In the midst of all of this, 38% of those surveyed expressed worry over the financial impact this pandemic will have on their future. Some work jobs to help their parents pay the bills, while others work to fund their own educations. Over half of those surveyed by DoSomething Strategic were worried about how long this economic situation would last, and a third reported having fears about how it will impact their future job prospects.
“With all that is going on, I get scared because I know I’m mostly on my own to pay for college and need to make thousands appear out of thin air,” a 17-year-old from Texas told DoSomething Strategic.
And adding more stress to the situation: Many Gen Zers have expressed frustration with the way the government has handled the pandemic.
DoSomething Strategic found that 89% of those surveyed want the government to take more “economic action” in its response to the pandemic, with 73% saying they want the government to give more financial support to individuals, and 59% wanting more financial support to small businesses.
As the US begins to open back up, 88% believe social distancing measures need to stay in place because the risk of COVID-19 spreading is still too high. Even if society were to reopen, only about four out of five polled said they felt confident going back to their normal routines.
“Our whole lives, these structures have failed us and we are looking for political stances outside the mainstream – because we feel like we don’t have time to solve these issues like income inequality and climate change. Incremental change isn’t going to get us there in time to prevent – this is dramatic, but it feels like a societal collapse,” Hailey Modi, a 21-year-old biomedical engineering student at UT Austin, told BuzzFeed News.
Therefore, it’s no surprise Gen Z is at the forefront of the current anti-police-brutality and racism protests.
Growing up in constant crisis, Gen Zers like Modi are known to be very vocal about their dissatisfaction regarding the ways the government has handled many social issues throughout their lifetime.
Right now, Gen Zers are at the forefront of the anti-police-brutality demonstrations sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white police officer in Minneapolis violently restrained him.
Yubo, a social networking app, exclusively worked with Business Insider to poll 38,919 US-based Gen Zers between the age of 13 and 25 to see how Gen Zers are responding to the civil unrest sparked by the ensuing protests.
The survey found that 88% of respondents felt that Black Americans are treated differently compared to others, even though 68% said their parents felt the same way.
Nearly 90% of those who responded to the Yubo poll said that they support Black Lives Matter, although 40% were either unsure or didn’t believe that a change will come from the current protests.
Still, 77% of respondents had already attended a protest to support equality for Black Americans, and 62% said they were willing to get arrested during a peaceful protest to support this equality.
When not protesting, Gen Zers have been turning to creative pursuits during the pandemic.
The creative platform VSCO surveyed 1,000 respondents between the ages of 14 and 24 from April 4 to April 22. The study found that 88% said that creatively expressing themselves has helped them feel less anxious during this time.
Additionally, 82% said the pandemic made them feel more appreciative of creative activities than before, while 52% said they have devoted more time to playing music. Meanwhile, 38% have devoted more time to journaling, 34% to dancing, 33% to photography and photo-editing, and 32% have taken up drawing.
This data echoes what DoSomething Strategic found: 58% of their Gen Z survey respondents said that, since the pandemic, they had picked up a new activity or were doing more of something they already enjoyed.
For example, Ansley Cestare, the 16-year-old from Flagler County, told Business Insider that she launched a “positivity” business, selling clothes with encouraging slogans on them.
Memes have also become a positive outlet for Gen Zers.
VICE Media surveyed over 9,000 millennials and Gen Zers to find out how they were coping with the pandemic. They reported that 72% of Gen Zer respondents said that memes and other humorous content make them feel they are “capable of getting through this.”
“Social media has assisted as the incredible force for connection in a time where people really need it,” Mary Noel, a director at the social impact consultancy DoSomething Strategic, previously told Business Insider. “There are more people doing video conferencing and FaceTiming and connecting via social media. They’re looking for more community out of social media as opposed to just consuming.”
Noel said Gen Zers are “utilizing social media tools to go do things together, but apart.” For example, high school seniors are having proms on Zoom, hosting virtual graduation parties, and putting together Instagram yearbooks.
“Specifically in a poll we did of millennial and Gen Z women, I think it was 32% of them said that social media was one of the ways that they were using to help cope right now,” said Andrea Stanley, features director at Cosmopolitan magazine. “You can only make so many sourdough starters before the wall starts closing in.”
And there is a silver lining: 87% of Gen Z believes the pandemic has made them feel more solidarity with others around the world.
Although the situation has left some “heartbroken,” many are grateful for the “silver lining” in this situation, VSCO’s survey found. Similarly, the DoSomething Strategic survey reported almost 40% of respondents said they hope some good will come out of this situation.
And social media isn’t just for meme-making and meme-sharing: Gen Zers say they’re using social media platforms to help spread awareness, capture, and document their new realities, according to VSCO’s poll, with 88% saying they’ve participated in a form of health awareness promotion on social media because of the pandemic.
The pandemic is also making Gen Z more interested in politics. Around 31% of Gen Zers surveyed said they are now more likely to vote in November, with 83% sharing that COVID-19 has impacted their views on the role of government.
“This is a generation that doesn’t like to sit still and do nothing,” Grey, PRZM head of community, told Business Insider. “We are looking at our current situation and finding ways within or around it to do something with our lives, to still live … the truth of the matter is this generation will have the greatest impact on what’s to come and to be.”
For example, many Gen Zers right now have taken to the streets to protest against police brutality and racism and said the widespread support of the Black Lives Matter movement has made them hopeful for their futures.
In a poll Yubo exclusively with Business Insider, nearly 90% of those who responded to the Yubo poll said that they support Black Lives Matter, an organization that fights against systemic racism and police brutality against Black Americans.
Seventy-seven percent of respondents have already attended a protest to support equality for Black Americans, and 62% said they were willing to get arrested during a peaceful protest to support this equality.
In a StuDocu poll done with Business Insider regarding Gen Zers and their thoughts on the Black Lives Matter protests, 64% said they were hopeful about the future because of the widespread support the Black Lives Matter movement has received.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, there are resources available.
Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (1-800-662-4357).
If you or someone you know has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). It provides 24/7 free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as the best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.