A deep dive into the correlation between Gen Z and therapy
Julia Heilrayne hadn’t slept in her bed for weeks. She couldn’t find the strength to walk up the stairs. Every day after school, she collapsed on the living room floor in a heap of tears, sobbing until she fell asleep.
Julia was a 16-year-old high school sophomore just outside of Austin, Texas. She was bright, bubbly and energetic. That is until her 9-year-old friend was killed in a murder suicide at the end of 2017. And within a few weeks, Julia was sexually assaulted on a school trip. Her school responded by saying, “maybe if you had screamed, it wouldn’t have happened.” As the cherry on top, Julia was diagnosed with a neurological disorder.
It was safe to say the smart and lively Julia everyone knew and loved was gone. She was a shell of herself; crying, panicking and skipping school nearly every day. All of these things culminated in the Heilrayne family’s decision to seek professional help for Julia. She needed to work through the trauma she experienced in the previous months, and her parents felt helpless in guiding her through it. Therapy was their best option.
“I was in indescribable amounts of psychological pain,” Heilrayne said. “Our efforts switched from getting me diagnosed, and finding out what was happening to me, to giving me and teaching me ways to get through the day [in therapy].”
Why are so many Gen Z in therapy?
Julia’s story is unique to her experience, but her decision to seek professional help is not. According to a 2018 report on stress in Generation Z from the American Psychological Association, people born between the years 1997-2012 are significantly more likely to seek professional help for mental health than any other previous generation. Nearly 40 percent of Gen Z reported seeing a psychologist or other mental health professional.
These numbers have only increased since the coronavirus pandemic began. According to a 2021 article on the struggles of young Americans from the American Psychological Association, Gen Z was nearly four times as likely than any other generation to report needing emotional support during the pandemic. The same article also reported Gen Z as having the worst decline in mental health since the pandemic began, with 46 percent of Gen Z saying their mental health had worsened in the past year.
The next logical question is why. Why are so many Gen Z in therapy? Anne Ducharme-Jones, LISW, a licensed independent social worker and psychotherapist from Des Moines, Iowa, chalks it up to several reasons.
“We live in a more complex world,” Ducharme-Jones said.
Which is true. People are constantly bombarded with the latest news and information. They communicate instantly at the touch of a button. And an individual’s self-worth has become dependent on likes, comments and shares.
“I think, perhaps, the world moves at a much faster pace, and things can change very quickly with a painful social media post,” Ducharme-Jones said. For Gen Z, social media has strong negative impacts. It causes a decrease in self-image and feelings of judgement from others.
“I also think there is an increase in younger people seeking out psychological services because there is just more awareness about mental health,” Ducharme-Jones said. The increase in awareness can be traced back to Gen Z. They’re using the internet to openly discuss their mental health and relate to others struggles.
A 2021 article on the openness of Gen Z to discussing mental health published in Verywell Mind, an online psychology journal, supports Ducharme-Jones’s claims. The stigma around mental health services has decreased. Knowledge of mental health issues has increased. And new life stressors such as social media have contributed to the rise of Gen Z in therapy.
What is Gen Z struggling with?
The short answer is anxiety and depression. According to the Pew Research Center, an institute for tracking demographic trends, 70 percent of teens report anxiety and depression as a major problem among their peers. Because of Ducharme-Jones’s specialization in those two areas, roughly 50 percent of her clients are Gen Z.
“As a young person, you start to experience more awareness about the world, and you’re having a lot more feelings,” she said. “Your brain development has a lot to do with it. You’re now capable of more deeper experiences. I think kids start to feel more feelings, and they’re not certain how to deal with them. As a result, it can create anxiety or depression.”
Ducharme-Jones emphasized that therapy is not exclusively for people with diagnosed disorders. Therapists are there to help clients learn skills and tools to work through problems in the everyday world. Many teens who seek professional help do not have diagnosed anxiety or depressive disorders. According to a 2018 article on anxiety disorders published by the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, occasional anxiety is normal. Many Gen Z simply need help identifying their feelings and working through them.
What do parents think about therapy?
Jax Anderson, a parent of a 10-year-old daughter in therapy, believes many parents are not open to their children seeking professional help.
“I think the typical response of parents is, ‘Why can’t you talk to me about that?’” Anderson said. “Or they’ll say, ‘Mental health is bullshit.’ ‘Suck it up!’ ‘You need to not be so sensitive.’”
Gen Z is certainly not the first generation to experience anxiety, depression and an increase in emotions during adolescence. It’s a normal part of growing up. But they are the first generation to destigmatize therapy. For hundreds of years, people viewed therapy through a Freudian lens of chaise lounges and forbidden eye contact. People were expected to deal with their struggles on their own, and ‘toughen up.’ Anybody who did seek professional help became the talk of the town, with ‘crazy’ newly attached to their name.
With a stigma like that, it’s no wonder previous generations didn’t see a therapist. So how did Boomers, Gen X, and Millenials cope with anxiety and depression? Ducharme-Jones theorizes previous generations may have dealt with their feelings by repressing them, acting out, using alcohol and illegal substances or engaging in some other unhealthy behaviors.
“Anxiety and depression have been around for a long time,” Ducharme-Jones said. “But people don’t know how to deal with them. Repression is a big one. They just try to bury it. I think that happens because they don’t realize that it’s okay to deal with [their feelings]. It’s just like, ‘I’m going to ignore this.’”
Many parents do not realize the importance of mental health. They view their child seeking therapy as a reflection of bad parenting—that they failed in some way. Others view therapy as a way to get attention. Both perspectives invalidate the child’s feelings. Anderson believes compassion and empathy can help defensive parents see the benefit of professional help.
As a psychotherapist herself, Anderson was proud when her daughter asked to see a therapist. She was wrestling with complex emotions and didn’t want to talk about them with her parents. Anderson understood she couldn’t fix everything. She wanted her daughter to learn from other people’s perspectives.
“I said, ‘I am so proud of you. That is really good insight that you know what you need,’” Anderson said. “‘Thank you for coming to me and letting me know what you need. We’ll get on that.’ And we did.”
Gen Z is making a statement with their acceptance of mental health and therapy. They don’t want to ‘toughen up’ and ignore their emotions like previous generations did. They want to work through them and stop the cycle of repression.
Is therapy the only option?
Therapy work for everyone, and it’s not the end all be all of mental health. Many people can’t afford therapy, so there are other ways Gen Z can deal with their mental health.
According to a 2019 article on mental health insurance published by the American Psychological Association, a law passed in 2008 requires insurance companies to treat mental and behavioral health as equal to medical or surgical coverage . The law is known as the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. It means the copay for a therapy visit must be equal to or cheaper than a regular doctor’s visit copay.
But for people without insurance or those looking for a therapy alternative, Ducharme-Jones recommends leaning on personal connections. Talk to someone who will listen and support, whether that’s a parent, friend, neighbor or school counselor. Another great option is self-help books. Some people don’t like talking about their struggles, so reading a book can help. “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown, PhD, LMSW, is Ducharme-Jones’s favorite. It discusses the importance of vulnerability and imperfection in a world which values composure and normalcy.
What are the results of therapy?
It’s safe to say there’s a strong correlation between Gen Z and therapy. According to a 2019 article on Gen Z mental health concerns published in the American Psychological Association, the poor mental health of Gen Z could mean greater awareness and acceptance of psychological issues. Their openness to mental health discussions represents a new age of compassion and understanding.
The relationship between Gen Z and therapy is a double edge sword, but the positives outweigh the negatives. Since her traumatic experiences sophomore year, 19-year-old Julia has graduated high school, began nursing school at Boston College, and promoted the awareness of mental health through her TikTok account of 53,000 followers.
“In high school, I didn’t think I was gonna be able to go to college,” Heilrayne said. “I didn’t think that I had any real future. Now, I am a freshman going into pediatric nursing.” Though she still struggles with post traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety, Julia is happy with her life at college. Therapy taught her to make room for her feelings, accept what is and take back control over her life. For not being able to climb the stairs to get to bed at one point in time, Julia is thriving.