Perhaps more than ever, mental health has become a central, normalized topic of conversation in households and online. That's especially true for Gen Z, the first generation whose entire lives have take place during the Internet Age.
Emma Lembke is a student at Washington University in St. Louis. When she did the research, she saw its glaring blind spot.
"The one thing I could not find in any of that research, and any of that literature were young people," Lembke said. "And I thought that was an incredible missing piece, because as young people, we are the experts in the space."
Lembke and Zane Landin are members of Generation Z, the first generation to only know a life of digital decadence and to know the effects it has. But they're also examples of a generation finally having its say in how to address it.
"A lot of young people are experiencing this mental health crisis for many different reasons," Landin said.
Do a Google search, and you'll learn more than half of young adults feel significant stress about sexual harassment and assault. Three in four feel significant stress about mass shootings. The National Survey of Children's Health found an increase of 1.5 million children with anxiety or depression between 2016 and 2020. And social media is a recurring catalyst.
Lembke says she got social media at age 12 and hit bottom at 16.
"All of these negative experiences really spiraled me into depressive thoughts and anxious bouts," she said.
Now at 21, she's the founder and director of Log Off. It's a movement to empower young adults to avoid the traps of social media. In three short years, it's played a part in legislative campaigns, most notably the push in California for a bill that restricts how much data sites can mine from younger users. It was signed into state law last year and it's currently being disputed in the courts.
"We are the only ones to grow up with social media being a part of our everyday life and being basically an extension of our identity," said Lembke. "And what I really discovered was that those voices weren't being prioritized and we weren't being listened to."
Now she is. So is Landin, part of the National Alliance on Mental Illness' Next Gen young adult advisory group, built last year to bring Gen Z voices to the conversation.
"I think COVID shifted many things," Landin said. "If you look at the mental health conversation before COVID and post-COVID, they're very different conversations."
"There has been a burden," added Lembke, "placed on those members and those generations to have conversations about issues that they don't understand."
The generation of digital decadence is also the generation most likely to report poor health and most likely to seek help. And because they're more open, because they're more vocal, they have become more active in solutions, on campus, in state houses, in general.
"We all approach the world very differently," said Landin, "but we all need to understand where each generation is coming from, what those values and priorities are."
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