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Young Are More Aware of Mental Health, Yet Less Resilient

Millennials don't stigmatize mental illness. They also have more of it.

LGBTQ millennials are twice as concerned about depression and mental health as LGBTQ baby boomers, according to a large new survey. Research finds that while they are less stigmatizing of mental health and illness, they may be less skilled at making the human connections needed to support it.

Released in June, Community Marketing and Insights’ 12th Annual LGBTQ Community Survey of 18,743 participants in the United States found that 62% of the participating millennials (born 1981-1999) rank mental health issues as a major health concern—compared with only 31% of the boomers (born 1942-1964).

Higher rates of mental illness

The National Alliance on Mental Illness says LGBTQ individuals are almost three times more likely than others to experience a mental health condition, such as major depression or a generalized anxiety disorder. NAMI says our youth are four times more likely than heterosexuals to attempt suicide, experience suicidal thoughts, or engage in self-harming behavior.

No matter their age, the common denominator in every study of LGBTQ mental health is discrimination and stigma.

A 2017 study of the special considerations in evaluating the mental health of LGBT elders found these older adults are at risk for significant mental and physical health disparities. They have higher rates of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse disorders. The stressors LGBT elders face include coming out, prejudice, stigma, anti-LGBT violence, and internalized homophobia, or self-stigma.

“Discrimination,” write the researchers, “is at the center of the substantial risk factors for this population and their communities, since it hinders both access and utilization of care.” In fact, 76% of all those participating in the Community Survey ranked LGBTQ discrimination as the No. 1 problem.

The millennial mental health crisis

NAMI says that more than 5 million college students are struggling with mental health, the reason many are calling it a “crisis of mental health.” A 2015 Chronicle of Higher Education report called "An Epidemic of Anguish" found more than 25% of college students have a diagnosable mental illness and had been treated in the past year. Suicide is the second leading killer of college students—three times the rate in 1950, according to the American College Health Association (ACHA).

Clearly LGBTQ Millennials aren’t the only ones of their generation experiencing higher rates of mental illness. A Vox Magazine report, “A Generation on Edge: A Look at Millennials and Mental Health,” cites a number of reasons for the uptick, including high-performance expectations for sports and universities, and “helicopter parents” who inject themselves between their well-loved children and any challenge that comes their way.

“Millennials don’t feel comfortable struggling,” says ACHA past president Dan Jones. “They don’t have the resilience of previous generations.”

Jones attributes this to the lack of problem-solving skills caused by ever-present parents removing every obstacle their children face. In fact, a 2011 study at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that students with helicopter parents are more likely to be medicated for anxiety and/or depression.

If hovering parents aren’t bad enough, millennials face the idealized lives their peers present to the world in their social media posts. As many as 98% of millennials use social media, and as Vox puts it, they are “the first generation to go through the trials of reaching adulthood through the ever-present lens of social media,” each day spending an average of three hours and 12 minutes using it.

Reasons for hope

Despite the challenges and grim statistics, there are more than ample reasons to hope the mental health of LGBTQ people will improve and future generations will be less burdened by depression, anxiety, and other challenges that can undermine health and shorten lifespans.

Compared with members of the "Greatest Generation" (born 1910-1924) and "Silent Generation" (born 1925-1945), boomers show a higher level of community integration, larger social networks—and higher rates of discrimination and victimization. The first generation to value “coming out” about their sexuality has paid a high social price for their openness—while also enjoying the greater reward of a supportive community.

“Despite the focus on health problems,” writes Karen I. Fredriksen-Goldsen, professor in the Hartford Center of Excellence in Geriatric Social Work at the University of Washington in Seattle, in “Promoting Health Equity Among LGBT Mid-Life and Older Adults,” “there are many positive signs of health, resilience, and strength among mid-life and older LGBT adults.” She notes that research finds most LGBT older adults are healthy, satisfied with their lives, aging well, and have strong personal and social ties.

Fredriksen-Goldsen reports that social support, social network size, physical and leisure activities, and substance non-use are strongly associated with high physical and mental health quality of life among LGBT mid-life and older adults. What’s more, three-fourths of LGBT boomers in an online survey believe their experience of living as a sexual or gender minority has better prepared them to deal with aging and becoming old—another stigmatized identity.

It’s important to point out that boomers, and those who grew up before the Internet and social media, are used to face-to-face socialization rather than constructing their social lives around social media. One can reasonably surmise that investing their social energy and time in relationships in the “real world,” rather than the sanitized self-presentation of Facebook and Instagram, pays dividends in the sense of connectedness and belonging that is so important to personal happiness and good mental health.

The tremendous advantages available to LGBT millennials include a far higher percentage of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people. There is more institutional support for LGBT rights and causes. They can legally wed the person they love regardless of his or her sex. They can serve openly in the military.

Perhaps most importantly, millennials are learning about mental health at an earlier age and not stigmatizing it. Celebrities are openly talking about their struggles. And of course social media, such a central part of their lives, offers them what is perhaps its most positive and powerful benefit of all: the awareness that they are not alone. For so many of us, knowing we weren't "the only one" was all we needed to set us on the road to healing and wholeness.

The need to know we aren’t alone transcends generations. In fact, it’s a big part of being human. The only difference today is that we have many more ways of staying connected. Of course, it’s still up to each of us to choose for ourselves connection over isolation, and resilience over brokenness.