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Are Millennials Really the Most Mentally Ill Generation?

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By Liz Greene

Sad womanThere are four of us in my group of closest friends. We’ve been together for 17 years, seen ups and downs, breakups and makeups, and the birth of children. We’re four unique women, in different situations, with varied backgrounds and familial structures.

All four of us suffer from some form mental illness.

I might shrug this off as a coincidence, but the thing is, we’re not alone. Everywhere I look, I see headlines inquiring about the mental stability of my generation. Are Millennials the most mentally ill generation ever?

The short answer is, “yes, but…”

A Solid Diagnosis

Western medicine has become much better at detecting mental illness. People who decades ago may have gone undiagnosed are now more likely to have their problems recognized. Ronald Kessler of Harvard Medical School in Boston explains, “Anybody who has anxiety or depression today would be more likely to be told they have it than if they went to a doctor 20 years ago.”

It certainly seems that Dr Kessler is onto something. More than any other age group, Millennials are being diagnosed with either depression or an anxiety disorder.

● Depression Diagnoses

○ 19% of Millennials
○ 14% of Generation Xers (ages 34-47)
○ 12% of Baby Boomers (ages 48-66)
○ 11% of aged 67 and older

● Anxiety Diagnoses

○ 12% of Millennials
○ 8% of Generation Xers
○ 7% of Baby Boomers
○ 4% of aged 67 and older

Furthermore, what was once considered psychological healthy (or at least not abnormal) is now seen as mental illness. This is due to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) expanding the definition of mental illness.

And the truth is, we really are getting sicker. The high rate of mental illness in the United States isn’t only because we’ve gotten better at detecting it. More of us really are mentally ill than in previous generations.

What’s Upsetting Generation Y?

Just why are so many of us sick? There are a number of (frankly ridiculous) theories making the rounds, from helicopter parenting to epidemic rates of narcissism and materialism. But slightly more credible is the idea that the decline in Millennial mental health is tied to the high levels of stress we’re under.

A 2015 study from the American Psychological Association (APA) showed 39% of Millennials reporting an increase in stress in the past year, with another 52% saying stress has kept them awake at night in the past month.

Norman Anderson, former CEO of the APA points out, “Stress is a risk factor for both depression and anxiety. We don’t have data on the specific causes of depression and anxiety in this sample, but it does make sense scientifically that the Millennials who report higher levels of stress in their lives are also reporting higher levels of depression and anxiety.”

Where is this stress coming from? The most often blamed sources are overwhelming student debt, the shrinking job market, and adults being forced to live at home with their parents due to financial instability.

Of course there are also biological factors, such as genetics, physical illness, injury, or brain chemistry. Many people with mental illness have a family history of mental health problems, including myself and two of my close friends.

Crushing the Stigma

There’s a nasty stigma surrounding mental illness, leading to some unfortunate side effects. People with mental illnesses are less likely to get treatment, twice as likely to suffer addiction problems, and four times more likely to be victims of violence. However, Millennials are working hard to crush this stigma and encourage a more people to seek help.

A survey done by a class of American University students showed broad acceptance of mental illness among the young people who responded.

  • Over 85% said they would be comfortable making friends with or working on a project with someone diagnosed with a mental illness.
  • 60% said they would be comfortable dating someone with a mental illness.
  • 50% said they would vote for someone with a mental illness.

So what does this mean for the future of Millennials? I am optimistic that with quicker diagnoses, a reduced stigma, and (hopefully) more affordable medical care on the horizon, we’ll start to see our generation’s struggle cease. However, if we don’t continue to work toward this goal, I’m afraid our fate will mirror that of Japan’s Lost Generation — and that is surely something none of us wish to see.

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