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The coronavirus pandemic is sowing the seeds of a mental-health epidemic. That’s according to clinical psychologist Benjamin F. Miller, who wrote for USA Today that America was already on track to face a crisis before the outbreak.
Self-isolation and social distancing are exacerbating the problem: 55% of respondents in a survey by the Benenson Strategy Group said the coronavirus has affected their mental health.
While Americans of all ages are feeling the emotional toll of the pandemic, millennials represent a particularly vulnerable group. They were already suffering from declining mental health, leading to what experts call a “health shock.” The new normal of life under quarantine is expected to inflame the loneliness and anxiety that so many within the generation already felt.
There are some silver linings, though, as millennials are leading the charge for mental-health resources in the workplace, which could result in positive changes.
Following is a look at the state of millennials’ mental health during the pandemic, from stress over their parents’ health to how they’re coping through food and alcohol.
Millennials are at greater risk of long-term mental-health issues during quarantine and social distancing, according to a psychotherapist and life coach.
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In an article for CNBC, Tess Brigham, a psychotherapist, wrote that some of her millennial clients, who make up 90% of her practice, have told her they felt “paralyzed” during the pandemic. She said the generation’s mental-health history puts them in a vulnerable position at this moment in history.
All generations have reported feelings of depression and anxiety during the pandemic, but it’s most experienced by millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, and Gen Z, those born 1997 and onward. Both generations were most likely to say their mental health significantly worsened during the pandemic, according to a report from NRC Health.
That’s partly because millennials had already been experiencing a rise in depression before the pandemic started.
Diagnoses for major depression in the US have been rising at a faster rate for millennials and teens compared with any other age group.
Since 2013, millennials have seen a 47% increase in major-depression diagnoses. The overall rate increased from 3% to 4.4% among 18- to 34-year-olds.
The most prominent symptom of major depression is “a severe and persistent low mood, profound sadness, or a sense of despair,” according to Harvard Medical School.
They were also seeing an increase in deaths of despair, including suicide.
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More millennials are also dying “deaths of despair,” or deaths related to drugs, alcohol, and suicide, Jamie Ducharme reported for Time in June 2019, citing a report by the public-health groups Trust for America’s Health and Well Being Trust, which analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While these deaths have increased across all ages in the past 10 years, they’ve surged the most among younger Americans, Ducharme said. They accounted for the deaths of about 36,000 American millennials in 2017 alone, according to the most recent available data. Drug overdoses were the most common cause of death, while suicides increased by 35%.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is the second leading cause of death among those between the ages of 10 and 34.
Though there isn’t available data on suicide rates among the generation during the pandemic, it’s possible that the crisis could create higher suicide risks in general, according to Jonathan Singer, associate professor of social work at Chicago’s Loyola University and president of American Association of Suicidology.
Suicides have already been reported, particularly among frontline medical workers of all ages. John Mondello, a 23-year-old in the New York City Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services, had reportedly been on the job less than three months before he killed himself a week ago.
This decline in mental health fueled a “health shock” among the generation.
A 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield report found that millennials were seeing their physical and mental health decline at a faster rate than Gen X as they age. Gen X is defined by Pew as those born between 1965 to 1980.
Without proper management or treatment, millennials could see a 40% uptick in mortality compared with Gen Xers when they were the same age, the report said.
Behavioral health — rises in rates of depression, hyperactivity (such as anxiety or ADHD), and substance abuse — is a key factor in the “health shock” among millennials, according to the report. Health shocks, as defined by the World Health Organization, are “unpredictable illnesses that diminish health status.”
The government has been documenting health shocks in terms of mortality since 1960. The situation is comparable to the effects the Vietnam War and recreational-drug use had on the Silent Generation (those born between 1928 and 1945) and the effect the AIDS epidemic had on baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964).
Millennials are also more prone to anxiety. Distractions from this could make them overlook mental-health implications.
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The same 2018 American Psychiatry Association survey that found millennials are the most anxious generation also found that anxiety is more prevalent among women than men.
When Brigham asked one millennial client what she’s doing about her anxiety, she said: “Honestly, I can’t afford to think about it. I’m too busy trying to keep up with work and making sure I have enough food for the week.”
But anxiety-inducing distractions make it easier for millennials (even those with preexisting issues) to overlook mental-health implications, Brigham wrote. She cited a study published in March in The Lancet that linked quarantine to post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, confusion, and anger, with some research suggesting these effects are long-lasting.
Millennials are worried about getting infected. A survey from the consumer-insights company Staance found that 53% of millennials were concerned about contracting the coronavirus.
Millennials are already a lonely generation, and the isolation of quarantine life that comes with the coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating that.
YouGov called millennials “the loneliest generation” based on a 2019 survey that polled 1,254 US adults. It found that millennials were more likely to feel lonely than previous generations. Of survey respondents, 30% of millennials said they always or often felt lonely, compared with 20% of Gen X and 15% of boomers.
More millennials reported in the survey that they had no acquaintances, friends, close friends, or best friends.
And a 2018 Cigna survey of 20,000 Americans found that many reported feeling lonely and left out. They were more likely than older adults to say they lacked meaningful relationships, shared ideas and interests with others, and closeness with others.
Millennials don’t always have someone with whom to share their mental burdens; they’re less likely to have social support than other generations, as they’re marrying later and are less connected to political or religious communities, according to Time’s Ducharme.
None of this is a good recipe for social distancing, which may take an even heavier toll on millennials living alone or struggling with anxiety or depression, Benjamin F. Miller, a psychologist and the chief strategy officer for Well Being Trust, a national foundation focusing on mental and spiritual health, told The New York Times.
“Many of our millennials already feel socially disconnected, and this exacerbates those ongoing feelings these folks already had,” he said.
Stress is also building for millennials. They’re spending a lot of time worrying that their parents might become infected with the coronavirus.
Millennials have been reckoning with the fact that their parents are aging and could be considered at-risk.
Parents of millennials are typically either Gen X, who turn ages 40 to 55 this year, and boomers, who turn 56 to 74. That means that many of these parents fall into the high-risk category for coronavirus: People over 60 are at greater risk of becoming ill than younger folks who don’t have underlying health conditions (those who do have preexisting conditions are also at higher risk). Coronavirus risk increases with age, making people in their 80s and 90s — for many millennials, their grandparents — at the highest risk.
Business Insider’s Hayley Peterson spoke with several millennials who said they were worried about their parents’ health, and who voiced frustration in trying to persuade them to stay inside. Brigham’s clients told her they’re worried their parents might get sick, she wrote.
Millennials were also more likely than any other generation to say they’re extremely concerned about their parents’ mental health, according to the NRC Health report.
Money has always been a concern for many millennials, but it’s a particular worry in this time of great unemployment.
Millennials, already behind since the Great Recession, have long faced financial challenges — notably student-loan debt, healthcare, childcare, and expensive housing.
Coronavirus-related layoffs have effectively erased the 22 million jobs that the US economy added after the Great Recession, from 2007 to 2009, likely causing more financial stress among the millennials affected. They might experience “unemployment depression,” as Business Insider’s Marguerite Ward reported.
A recent survey by Bankrate and YouGov found that millennials have actively cut their spending more so than other generations during this economic climate.
Studies have found a correlation between people with debt and mental-health problems. While this research, by its nature, can’t identify causality, the likelihood of having a mental-health disorder is three times as high among those with unsecured debt, according to a meta-analysis in the Clinical Psychology Review.
Millennial women in particular are experiencing more anxiety and stress during the coronavirus than previous generations.
Millennial women are more anxious and stressed about the coronavirus than older generations, a survey by media company Meredith found. Two-thirds said they were worried about the pandemic, compared to nearly half of baby-boomer women.
It’s likely that the loneliness, financial concerns, and worry about parents becoming infected are playing a role in this heightened stress and anxiety.
To cope, millennials are turning to food and alcohol.
According to a Morning Consult survey, 28% of US adults said they were eating more during their self-quarantine. But millennials are most likely to turn to this coping mechanism, with 33% of respondents said they’re doing this.
Millennials are also more likely than other generations to drink alcohol during the pandemic. While 16% of US adults said they’ve been drinking more, 25% of millennials said they’ve turned to alcohol.
One marriage and family therapist said the hardships millennials have faced in that past have prepared them to withstand the pandemic.
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Paul Hokemeyer, a family and marriage therapist, said in an interview with quarterly business magazine Campden FB that because millennials experienced 9/11 and came of age during the Great Recession, “they understand the fragility of both life and the financial markets.”
This has given them “a hunger for issues related to mental health, environmental stewardship, compassion, empathy,” he added. “They despise the division that has come to define our world and see this pandemic through a lens of resiliency and grit. Nearly every millennial I work with has placed this crisis in the realm of a ‘universal recalibration,’ a ‘right-sizing of humanity,’ or ‘a wake-up call from Mother Nature.'”
And because millennials are more aware of mental-health issues, they’re pushing for changes in the workplace.
Millennials, along with some Gen Zers, are demanding their companies offer resources to help address mental health.
“We’ve seen it become more part of our cultural lexicon,” Megan Jones Bell, chief science officer at the meditation app Headspace, previously told Business Insider. “These younger generations are really driving that change.”
She added: “Mental-health problems are affecting them more, and they are much more likely to want to talk about it and expect their employers to help them with it. It is positive that they are demanding that they’re addressed.”
Ultimately, Bell said, this could drive more companies to provide more mental-health resources for workers.
Their efforts are working. Many big companies have already expanded their resources.
Some 53% of 256 employers surveyed by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions reported providing special emotional- and mental-health programs for their workforce because of the pandemic.
They’ve changed employee-assistance programs, offered discounts on apps, and provided more virtual service options like remote yoga classes.
Consider Starbucks, which is giving employees and their family members 20 free counseling sessions a year. Target is offering US employees access to free online resources to support their mental, emotional, and physical health. PwC is offering well-being coaches.
If you’re struggling with depression, help is available.
The Crisis Text Line, which provides free confidential crisis intervention by text message, has seen an uptick in texts during the pandemic.
Although such a surge may seem problematic at first glance, it shows that more people are open to reaching out and seeking help.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, there are resources available. Text the Crisis Text Line (741747) or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (1-800-662-4357).
If you or someone you know has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). It provides 24/7 free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as the best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.
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