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Young Adults' Mental Health Has Begun to Improve

Young people are still not doing as well as older generations, though.

Key points

  • Young adults report feeling anxious at higher rates than older generations, and more than a quarter say they have no one they can count on.
  • At the height of pandemic lockdowns, more than 60 percent of young adults reported feeling lonely. That number has now dropped by half.
  • Even as Gen-Z mental health has improved, professors and others need to be conscious of their persistently higher rates of anxiety.
Renáta Zaja/FreeImages
Source: Renáta Zaja/FreeImages

Guest post by Samuel J. Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Virtual teaching during a global pandemic presented opportunities to examine the nation and its diversity, and led to some spectacular experiences. But the remote environment that afforded such moments also left many of my students burnt out and struggling by the end of the term. Students tried, and in many cases succeeded, in making distance education work — and even work well. But three online semesters during the COVID-19 pandemic produced incredible amounts of stress and feelings of isolation. When I concluded teaching two undergraduate seminars just a few weeks ago, many of my students were not in a good place.

There is good news, but with a warning: The health of those in Gen Z – my students whose ages range from 18 through 24 – is improving. However, colleges and universities must be aware that students are in far worse shape than the professors who teach them. My own students came to me with stories about the more intense workload in many classes because it was assumed by professors that there was more time to read, research, and write, with little recognition of the difficulties that the pandemic was creating.

As one student in Inside Higher Education’s Student Voice Survey observed, “No one actively reaches out and makes sure students are doing OK, and no one takes action to address the root causes of the issues. No matter how anxious or depressed you are, that paper’s still due on Friday.” Sentiments of this sort have been all too common over the past year. As campuses reopen in person this fall, it will be critical that those of us in higher education pay attention to our students’ well-being. If we ignore the mental strain students face, academic “slide” and an epidemic of depression among young people could continue even as the pandemic becomes a memory.

American Enterprise Institute data indicate that Gen Z Americans are more anxious than their older counterparts. Today, 40% of Gen Z respondents report feeling anxious at least a few times a week or more often, while 25% of Gen Xers, 22% of Boomers, and 18% of Silents feel the same way. Further, more than a quarter of Gen Z-ers (26%) report feeling that they have no one that they can count on – notably more than the figures for Gen Xers (18%), Boomers (16%), and Silents (17%).

Last May, a disturbingly high proportion of Gen Z Americans regularly felt lonely or isolated (61%) and about half reported feeling depressed a few times a week or more often. Data from AEI’s Survey Center of American Life new report, "The State of American Friendship," show substantial improvement. Today, loneliness and isolation have dropped to 31% and depression is down to 28% — a decrease of 42%.

Despite these improvements in mental health among college-aged Americans, members of Gen Z are still struggling more than members of other generations. Today, less than 20% of Gen Xers (born between 1965 and 1980), Baby Boomers (1946 to 1964), and members of the Silent Generation (1928 to 1945) report feeling depressed. Less than a quarter of Gen Xers, Boomers, and Silents say they feel lonely or isolated.

As the summer months allow for more socialization as greater numbers of Americans are vaccinated, we can be optimistic about these downward trends. However, the data underscore the reality of young people’s mental health decline during the global pandemic and expose the fact that a large number of younger Americans are still struggling and that this is often not immediately or readily apparent; parents and families should be on the lookout for mental health issues.

In addition to families needing to pay attention to the mental health of their Gen Z members, it is crucial that professors recognize that the pandemic affected students more than themselves. This was a serious issue for the past year and a half, and with students eager to resume in-person learning this fall, colleges and their mental health professionals must be prepared to manage the psychological needs of those returning to campus. It will not be easy.

As the fall semester approaches, a little flexibility, compassion, and empathy may go a long way as both the nation and our college campuses heal and move forward.

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