Millennials & Mental Illness: Why We Need To Start Talking About It

Millennials & Mental Illness: Why We Need To Start Talking About It

According to data compiled by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 42.5 million Americans between the ages eighteen and up are affected by mental illness at least once a year.

Of these, 9.3 million have had their day-to-day activities impeded by their mental illness. A large portion of these people are made up of a generation often attacked for being “shallow” and coddled: Millennials.

A 2015 report by The Chronicle of Higher Education shows that more students than ever come to college on medication or in treatment for mental health problems: more than five million according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Dan Jones, former president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, comments that there has been an increase in destructive self-harm behaviors, such as cutting or thoughts of suicide in recent years. Speaking to this point, suicide is one of the most common causes of death for college students, second only to car accidents.

According to the American College Health Association, there are more than a thousand 1,000 suicides on college campuses a year. This is more than three times as much as was prevalent in the 1950’s.

Why Is This Happening To Millennials?

There are many reasons for why millennials might develop a mental illness. One source may be the incredible amounts of pressure to make the grade. Society and families are pressuring students to attend college at increasingly high rates. Once at college, millennials find themselves competing with more of their peers for fewer jobs

And so students are taking on twelve to fifteen credits, working part-time at a job or an internship, joining clubs, as well as maintaining relationships and juggling familial responsibilities. They make physical and mental sacrifices to stay competitive in an ever-growing pool of applicants for internships and employment.

Despite all of this, the latest numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau state that millennials are expected to be the first generation to make less money than their parents. In a 2012 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 44 percent of recent graduates with at least a bachelor’s degree were working in jobs that did not require a college degree.

Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me and a professor at San Diego State University, headed a study that examined the results of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory – a mental health survey given to college students since 1938.

She found that many students have shifted focus from intrinsic goals, such as self-improvement or fulfillment, to extrinsic goals, like material awards and outside approval. Another study, started in the 1970’s by Twenge, found an unusual trend: people aren’t becoming happier as they get older.

According to a 2015 Associated Press article about the study, young adults could be suffering from “economic insecurity,” or the fear that they won’t be able to achieve all that they are expected to.

Social Media And Mental Health

For the first time, the ever present lens of social media is available to add to the pressure and fear of failure, as it has made it easier than ever for anyone to view these peers’ accomplishments and compare it to their own.

A 2014 thesis by University of Michigan’s Angie Zuo found that college students who spend time on Facebook engage in more social comparison with their peers and that, the more college students compare themselves, the more they showed signs of low self-esteem and mental health problems.

A 2015 MU study on Facebook connected heavy use to feelings of envy, which lead to increased symptoms of depression. Rajita Sinha, director of the Yale Stress Center, told Business Insider, that social media, when used for social comparison, exaggerates anxiety.

But the person someone portrays on social media isn’t real.

Instead, their profiles and accounts act as a kind of“highlight reel,” where people post only the best parts of their lives, stripped of the boring daily activities and their failures.

College students often put extreme care into crafting the perfect online presence. And when it comes to real life, millennials still carefully filter how others see them: fewer than fifty percent felt they would be able to talk to friends and family about seeking help.

Gen Y’s Parental Influence

Because many parents and teachers have given their children access to resources, and relentless means and motivation to succeed, they are constantly expected to achieve.

But these same parents have neglected to teach their children how to deal with the failure they will inevitably face at least once in their lives. As Dan Jones puts it, they “don’t get used to the idea that they’re not always number one or not always the best.” This leads to substantial levels of self-doubt.

Jones attributes this to the kind of parents that constantly remove of the natural obstacles their children face, otherwise known as “helicopter parents.” These well-intentioned parents choose college classes for their children, call universities to ask about a bad test score, and even tag along to job interviews.

A 2011 study by Terri LeMoyne and Tom Buchanan at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga found that students with helicopter parents are more likely to be medicated for anxiety and/or depression.

Indiana University psychologist Chris Meno says in an article by the Indiana University News Room that the link between mental illness and this style of over-parenting is due to the fact that these college students have never had to balance between independent decision making and asking for help.

Young people these days often have trouble expressing feelings and dealing with discomfort or negative emotions. “Millennials don’t feel comfortable struggling,” Jones says. “They don’t have the resilience of previous generations.”

Getting Help 

“They think they’re flawed and broken,” Terry Wilson, co-project director of health promotion and wellness at MU, says.

But despite being harder on themselves, millennials were found to be more accepting of others with mental illness than previous generations, according to a survey conducted by American University in 2015. Of those surveyed, 85 percent said they would have no problem making friends or working with someone experiencing a mental illness.

This gradual slackening of the stigma of mental health has thankfully made it easier for more students to seek help.

University mental health centers are now seeing more clients than ever. Jones says a campus mental health center can expect to service ten percent of the student population at least once. Additionally, the growing panic on campus shootings and the mental illness factor that might play into them, university health centers have been expected to set up procedures, education and treatment.

But even with this rise in demand, cuts in universities’ federal and state funding means that these vital services are given very limited amounts of capital. On top of that, many of the private practice services at universities were closed down during the recession.

Despite this, there are multiple services that university mental health centers commonly offer. These include:

  • Counseling
  • Psychiatric services
  • Classes on mindfulness and meditation
  • Group therapy

Occasionally, there also is a type of spa allowing students privacy to distress in private through light therapy, massages, and biofeedback. Ways students can help combat their mental illness outside of these services is to find strength through friends or family, or devoting more energy to exploring their passions.

Mental illness is not something that can ever be “cured.” Often it is a lifelong battle. But with adequate help and support, mental illness is something that can become more manageable.

*If you ever are in crisis, whether or not you are thinking about ending your life, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can connect you to a trained counselor at a center in your area.Their number is 1-800-273-TALK.



Author Bio: Arête Caldwell is currently a sophomore at Portland State University, where she is majoring in psychology and is planning on adding a double major of social work.

Arete Caldwell

Arête Caldwell is currently a sophomore at Portland State University, where she is majoring in psychology and is planning on adding a double major of social work.

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