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Millennial Distress: Why So Much? Why Now?

Socioeconomic and social media influences upon young adult psychopathology

In this blog, I divert from my usual focus on bipolarity and instead discuss the broad range of contemporary factors contributing to emotional distress within the millennial generation (young adults). Some of the same factors also pertain to bipolar disorder, best conceptualized through a stress-diathesis model where the emergence of the disorder is seen as an interaction between one’s predisposition towards the illness and the effects of environmental stress. In other words, if we take an individual genetically predisposed to bipolarity, he or she will have a higher likelihood of developing the disorder if faced with higher levels of stress. The same holds true for most other psychiatric diagnoses as well.

High levels of stress certainly are very real within contemporary society. In 2013, Time magazine reported results from the National Stress Survey, an annual analysis by Harris Interactive for the American Psychological Association

The survey revealed that 35 percent of adults polled since 2007 reported feeling more stress than they did in the previous year. Furthermore, on a scale of 1 to 10, the millennial generation stood at a stress level of 5.4, significantly higher than the adult national average of 4.9.

Focusing upon the university population, results from the 2016 American College Health Survey indicate that within the year prior to being surveyed, 17 percent of surveyed students felt so depressed it was difficult to function, 22 percent felt overwhelming anxiety, and 19 percent felt overwhelmed by all they had to do.

Furthermore, as reported in the 2016 Association of University and Counseling Center Director’s Survey, 57 percent of directors perceived the severity of student mental health concerns on their campuses had increased. Directors also reported that 26 percent of students seen at counseling centers were on psychiatric medication, and 16 percent of students presented with extensive or significant prior mental health histories.

No doubt, the years of university life coincide with a high degree of emotional/psychological distress.

The “why” is complex and multi-factored, without any one reason outweighing the rest, though certain sets of stresses will affect some individuals more than others. The broader picture is not a statement of what’s broken or wrong with contemporary society, but a reflection of evolving societal trends and cultural norms, with the strongest influences coming from economics and technology.

Economics of Education

Looking at data reported through two websites — LendEdu and Student Loan Hero — we see that 60 percent of college graduates are carrying student loan debt. The average 2016 graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt, up six percent from the previous year. Additionally, the average amount of debt per graduating graduate student is $57,600.

If we were to look at a 6-percent loan in the amount of $37,000 over a 15-year loan repayment schedule, this comes to a monthly payment figure of $363. A similar loan in the amount of $57,600 comes to $530 monthly.

Young adult’s concerns about the financial ramifications that accompany their attainment of a degree (or degrees) are quite real. However, their dilemma takes on sharper focus when we consider the nature of the employment market they’re faced with upon completion of their expensive education.

Millennial Job Market

A 2015 article in the Daily Caller informs us that only 14 percent of graduating seniors had secured steady, career-oriented jobs for their post-graduation lives. The more alarming implication here is that 86 percent of college graduates had not yet developed any postgraduate career prospects. Even worse, the same article points to the data indicating that only 13 percent of graduate-degree-earning students will obtain career-oriented employment following their graduation. That’s 13 out of every 100, less than 2 out of 10.

The painful reality is that graduating college students are experiencing increased debt concurrent with decreased job opportunities. Today’s millennials are taking on significant financial obligation without any guaranteed route for repayment of substantial debt. Additionally, our late-age teens face intense competition for admission to top-tier universities, in the hope they will come away with a stronger entry ticket into an increasingly competitive job market with fewer available career options. Is it any surprise that over the last several years, anxiety has replaced depression as the number-one presenting complaint of college students seeking help through university student counseling centers?

A second significant influence contributing to the emotional distress of our young adults entails the profound effect that electronic media has upon the developmental trajectory of today’s adolescents and young adults.

Ubiquity of Social Media and Its Impact on the Self

Adolescents and millennials live in an online world. Texting, social networks (Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter, etc.), and online group chats have become predominant modes of communication. A 2015 report from the Pew Foundation informs us that 90 percent of young adults use social media, up from 12 percent in 2005 — and representing a 78-percent increase over the last decade!

In a 2014 article Gallup News reports that “more than two-thirds of 18 to 29-year-olds say they sent and received text messages ‘a lot’ the previous day, as did nearly half of Americans between 30 and 49. Younger Americans are also well above average in their use of cellphones, email and social media on a daily basis.” This same theme is echoed through a 2015 article from Common Sense Media, which reports that teens consume an average of nine hours per day of electronically based media entertainment!

24-Hour News Cycle

We live in a world where we’re constantly on the receiving end of negative news. An amalgam of information about assault, murder, accidental death, economic downturns, war, terrorism, environmental disaster, and political upheaval comes at us in a constant stream of tweets, e-mail blasts, subscribed news feeds, texts, web pages, and social media. This incoming information stream often occurs without our intention to connect with information sources. And if we do elect to seek it out, all the bad news one can digest is only a click away. Gone are the days when we hear about events on the nightly news or through the less frequent publication of the Sunday paper. Now they’re just add-ons to the 24-hour news stream that floods us with negative information.

What makes this problematic is that we assess stability and security through information we receive about our environment. The world of 1980 may not have been any safer than our world today, but certainly our awareness of negative events was less in the foreground. The heightened awareness of negative news leads us to perceive a much higher potential for negative turn of events than we did when we received less news volume and lesser news frequency. As with the economic picture, people live with a greater sense of insecurity and fear of what the future holds in store.

Self-Esteem, Social Comparison, and Social Media

The predominance of online interaction presents the possibility of a consistent, eroding negative influence upon individual self-esteem.

How do we come to feel the way we do about ourselves? Positive esteem typically reflects the presence of sufficient positive affirmation and parental empathy during childhood development. However, during adolescence, as one’s peer group becomes more central to identity development, we see a significant shift in the influences upon self-esteem. Essentially, the adolescent and young adult place a much higher value upon the role of comparative social perception. “How am I doing” essentially becomes a reflection of “How I perceive I’m doing in relation to how others are doing.” And this is where social media becomes a slippery slope.

Check out many posts about people’s recent experience . . . “Had a great time visiting with family in Colorado.” “Actually survived my 21st birthday — whooped it up with friends at the beach.” “Check out this picture of me with friends having an awesome time this past weekend.” “Amazing concert last night — can’t believe I was lucky enough to get tickets.” And on and on....

The truth is, if we look at common social media posts about day-to-day life, we’d think that most people experience abundant pleasurable connections with others. We might even think most people smiled much of the time; at least they do in pictures. The reality is that the portrayal of experience through social media can lead one to conclude that others have a cornucopia of positive experiences. For some, it might be that good, but that’s not what mental health data tells us about the lives of many teens and young adults. The darker, more painful side of life is not the prevailing presentation of self that we see online.

While we do find the occasional post about someone’s loneliness or existential angst, that’s not the prevailing picture conveyed through social media. People aren’t posting images of themselves sitting at home feeling lonely or worried. We don’t as frequently hear about family visits that went awry or the extent to which people are feeling unwanted or underappreciated. And without that kind of data, it becomes all too easy for individuals to perceive that they are living an inferior version of life. They’re missing out on the action. Day by day, year by year, these skewed social perceptions very much contribute to shaky foundations of low self-esteem.

Inadequate Practice With Real Relationships

Prior to social media and texting, if you wanted to “hang out” with someone, you usually had to be in their presence. Such provided a lot of “practice” at relating.

I’ll date myself here . . . I’m a baby boomer who grew up on Long Island in post-WWII 1950s and attended college between 1966 and 70. I remember, as a kid, if I wanted to play, I’d get on my bike and ride down the block, knock on the door, and say, “Can Jimmy come out and play?” In my teens, after-school life was spent with friends at after-school activities, or at home trying to figure out how to entertain myself (I was an only child). And during college life, much time was spent socializing with others in dormitories, at coffee shops, or at the campus pub (NY State drinking age was 18). My experience wasn’t that different by graduate school (late 1970s). If I were going to be with others, I’d actually have to “be” with others. Today, that is far less prevalent. Today’s young-adult culture impedes adequate exposure to the extended experience of learning and cultivating interpersonal intimacy.

There is a stark contrast between quality and quantity. Online social media platforms allow young adults to have a sense of affiliation with many more people than was ever the case before. And that’s not all bad. But, for those without numerous close relationships, the online world fosters a sense of disconnection. The millennial watches life being lived by others, which is quite different than experiencing the progression of deepening connection with others. This experience of watchful disengagement leaves an important set of interpersonal skills underdeveloped for today’s young adult. An unexercised muscle doesn’t develop. It atrophies.

Extended Parental Connection — Delayed Development of Autonomy

Another comparison with baby boomer experience: When I went to college, it was common to call home about once a week. Cell phones didn’t exist, and long-distance landline calls were expensive. The sources of support for college students were typically peers and adults in the college environment. While interpersonal connection had the potential for more depth, ongoing connection with parents or others in the family unit was less readily accessible, at least for those who went away to college. Essentially, the 19 or 20-year-old had to figure out how to manage the college years without the daily support and parental involvement that’s prevalent in today’s culture.

Today’s youth in their late teens and early 20s experience a different kind of connection with “home.” In a 2013 Duke University dissertation, doctoral candidate Megan Golonka writes that a study of 180 residential college students found “in a given week, students reported an average contact frequency (with both parents combined) of 10.92 cell phone calls, 49.88 text messages, and 6.04 email exchanges.” That amounts to 1.6 phone calls per day and 7.1 texts per day! The good news in this picture is reflected in one of the study’s conclusions: “Overall, students reported high satisfaction with both the frequency and the quality of communication with their parents. Greater levels of parental closeness significantly predicted higher satisfaction with the parent-child Facebook friendship.”

Yes, parental support is a good thing. In fact, it’s quite possible that baby boomers would have experienced a smoother transition into adulthood had parental support been more available once adolescents left the nest and headed off to college. But as with rich food, too much isn’t necessarily a good thing. Excessive parental involvement during late adolescence and early adulthood can undermine development of resilience, self-reliance, and autonomy, all of which are essential for the young adult’s successful management of contemporary life stresses.

A Top-heavy Structure with Inadequate Foundation

Prior to our culture’s ubiquitous connectivity, life approached the developing psyche more gradually. Exposure to explicit, media-based sexuality and aggression was typically slower to arrive and more measured. Negative news came at us in smaller pieces. Self-esteem could gradually evolve without the unique threat posed by pervasive social-media-based comparative perceptions of self. Competition for social and academic status developed more gradually. But in the second decade of this 21st century, children from grade school through high school and college are flooded with intense stimuli and increasingly pressured by the reality that future success requires sustained high achievement.

My concern is that I see a lot of intensity from real-world stresses being piled on the developing psyche before the individual has sufficient biological (brain development) and psychological maturation to be able to manage such intensity. Concurrently, self-esteem is being negatively impacted by an idealized social construction of the good life that others are living. Add to that the delayed development of self-reliance and resilience, and you have a system that’s overloaded without sufficient development of its internal resources. The shiny new skyscraper has been constructed without placement of sufficient rebar and cement to insure a strong foundation capable of withstanding the inevitable stresses the building will face.

The unfortunate reality is that there are no easy fixes. We will never get to return to a simpler, less-connected world, or reshape society towards more balance and less stress. Our task is to understand what’s happening with young adult development and to ascertain how educators, administrators, mental health professionals, and parents can best assist our millennials to survive and thrive towards adult maturity.

Russ Federman, Ph.D., ABPP is in private practice in Charlottesville, VA ( He is co-author of Facing Bipolar: The Young Adult’s Guide to Dealing with Bipolar Disorder (New Harbinger Publications).

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