Generation Z (Gen Z), also known as iGen, Centennials, or Zoomers, is the generation following Millennials. Generation Z is a demographic group generally defined as being born between 1997-2012, meaning they are currently between the ages of 10-24. Known as digital natives, Gen Z is tech-savvy; recognized as the first generation raised with technology like the internet and social media being easily accessible. As a result, they have the opportunity to access a wealth of information and the ability to connect with like-minded individuals around the world.
It would also not be wrong to say that the Gen Z has had it rough. So far, Gen Z has been exposed to the devastation of 9/11, economic crashes, polarized political views, gun violence, growing concerns about climate change, and now, yet another year of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can see a glimpse of everything the Gen Z has been through on social media. Social media has been criticized for the negative impact it has had on its younger users as it makes violence and sexualized media content more easily accessible and has increased harassment and bullying online. In a 2018 study by the American Psychological Association (APA), only 45% of Gen Z reported that their mental health was ‘very good’ or ‘excellent.’ It stated that Gen Z is overall more stressed than other generations, and more likely to report mental health concerns. It’s, of course, impossible for us to draw direct links between Gen Z’s mental health and any specific event, or issues; but looking at what the generation has already experienced, it’s easy to understand the heaviness they bear as they try to imagine the future in front of them.
Furthermore, Statistics Canada states that visible minority groups are even more likely to report poor mental health. A 2019 marketing study of Canadian youth aged 13-24 states that 45% of Gen Z identifies as a visible minority. It is proven that visible minority groups face additional barriers such as discrimination or lack of representation among practitioners, and systemic barriers such as financial challenges, and geographic challenges, including limited resources locally.
So how are today’s youth smashing mental health stigma?
Gen Z is more open and willing to discuss mental health than any other generation we’ve seen to date. According to the APA, more than a third of Gen Z have said that they have received medical treatment or therapy from a mental health professional. This is more than any other previous generation.
Through social media, Gen Z is able to connect with others who are experiencing similar struggles. In a time when in-person interpersonal connections are limited due to lockdowns and restrictions, it is understandable that Gen Z has become increasingly reliant on their digital relationships. With many provinces across Canada turning to online learning, and cancelling in-person recreational activities or moving them to a virtual platform, the daily social interactions that are so important to the social development and well-being of youth are few and far between.
Raised online with a ‘nothing is private’ point of view, it is common for Gen Z — digital natives — to be confident and quick to virtually address inappropriate or unacceptable behaviour. Gen Z is leading the way in their response and willingness to stand up for their values, such as fair treatment and equality for all; helping create a safe space online for mental health experiences to be discussed.
Gen Z can also be found posting memes and parody videos of their experiences with mental illness, poor mental health, or the daily mental health challenges they face. For youth experiencing and trying to manage their own mental health and mental illness, this dark, and often self-defeating humour can be a way to connect with peers and find comfort in sharing the same, often difficult, experiences.
Social media provides not only a platform for individuals to share their experiences, but is also a way for them to connect with other individuals who are sharing their own stories. Celebrities, such as Simone Biles, Billie Eilish, Millie Bobby Brown, and Demi Lovato, vocalize their own mental health journeys and stand as role models for mental health discussion. Sharing experiences online helps form a sense of community, opening discussions about mental health, and providing comfort in the shared understanding and empathy of mental health struggles. This is empowering; it normalizes, helps increase the willingness to talk about, and seek treatment for mental health.
In addition to increasing the discussion of lived mental health experiences, counsellors, doctors, psychologists, and other medical professionals are using social media to provide education. Posting infographics, TikToks, and Instagram Reel videos, they are able to share resources and information about and mental health and mental illnesses. Crisis phone lines have begun to include online-chat options to provide support for youth who are more comfortable talking online. Advertisements also aim to reduce the stigma of mental health, with online therapy being promoted through social media, podcasts, and traditional media.
While we can applaud Gen Z for increasing discussions around mental health and its treatment, it’s important that we recognize that the work of de-stigmatizing mental health and mental illness doesn’t end there. Open discussion about mental health is a great first step, but there are more steps that need to be made to challenge the stigma that exists. Other steps include changing the harmful stereotypes about severe and persistent mental illness that are still being portrayed through media, increasing mental illness literacy, and helping ensure that resources for medical interventions are more widely available. Better access to mental illness treatment in underserved areas, and taking a more proactive and preventative approach to treatment helps ensure that people are able to get the support they need when they need it. This also helps to encourage people to build strategies to manage their mental health or illness in advance, instead of having to find strategies while in the midst of a mental health crisis.
Our youth facilitators at BCSS recognize that participants are not only navigating these challenges alongside their classmates, but also the complexities of having a family member with a mental illness. Kids and Teens In Control provide valuable lessons in how to regulate and understand emotions; set healthy boundaries; build strength and emotional maturity. Through these programs, participants build skills in coping and resiliency. This groundwork not only helps youth in their responses to potential home-life situations but also builds a foundation of interpersonal skills that will help Gen Z in all aspects of life.