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How Millennials Are Changing Mental Health in the Time of COVID-19

While the outlook on mental health and millennials seems pretty grim, I firmly believe that this generation is well-equipped to emerge better from this crisis. Here’s how...

A crisis disrupts. It also reveals.

COVID-19 cuts across every line, and every life. While there is growing evidence concerning racial and socioeconomic disparities, we are all feeling the strains— from sheltering-in-place, to wearing masks and gloves, to social distancing.

I live in the Bay Area and have been sheltering-in since the first order in mid-March, now extended until May 31st. I constantly remind myself of how fortunate I am to have a job, the ability to work from home, access to nature and greenspace, and so on. But my heart breaks for the essential workers who don’t have a choice in risking exposure, my friends (and everyone else) living in New York City whose unparalleled vibrancy has been dimmed, and others who have been directly impacted by this global health crisis.

And despite my relative good fortune, I’m bummed out: I miss catching up with friends over wine or a meal, hosting game night at our apartment… IRL! I miss getting out of the city on the weekends to explore this beautiful part of the country. For the first time in a while, I’m feeling the pains of being a plane ride away from most of my family. As a native east coaster, it’s rare that I go more than a few months without traveling back. I’m sad that I don’t know when I’ll next get to squeeze my almost six-month old nephew, or to hug my aging (but vibrant!) grandparents. And sometimes, as I’ve tearily explained to my significant other, “I just miss my mom.”

It’s part of my day job to study the mental health of Americans and analyze data surrounding stress, anxiety and depression. And unfortunately, I’m not shocked to see what some are referring to as the “second curve” following the peak in COVID-19 cases – a dramatic uptick in mental health issues. Unlike the COVID-19 bell curve, I suspect the mental health curve will look more like a wheelbarrow.  

Reflecting on my own feelings and experiences, and those of my friends and peers, I’ve come to understand the magnitude of this mental health crisis on a more personal level. These small moments I’ve described myself of fear, uncertainty and sadness can undoubtedly lead to bigger mental health challenges over time.

Recent survey data from my company, Ginger, shows that my generation – the Millennials – are reporting stress related to COVID-19 at a dramatically higher proportion (62%) than any other age group. At first glance, this may simply seem like a continuation of a trend pre-COVID-19. Our generation has been experiencing a decline in both physical and mental health long before COVID-19. A recent Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) report showed that millennial Americans are experiencing double-digit increases in prevalence for eight of the top 10 health conditions, including a 30% increase between 2014 and 2017.

And this isn’t a surprise to me. Many of us entered the workforce during the great recession of the late 2000s, saddled with mounting student debt and uncertain gig work. People my age are worried about their own financial, physical, and mental health, in addition to supporting young children and/or aging parents. We’ve become (or are quickly becoming) the sandwich generation. Some of my friends who have chosen to stay uncoupled have told me how much they miss basic human touch. On the other end of the spectrum, other friends are stressed by unwieldy living situations with too many roommates due to unaffordable housing. 

And in missing my weekend wine tastings and outdoor excursions with friends, I’m not alone. Millennials crave experiences more than things: concerts, travel, meals, and so on. In the current climate, most of those experiences are indefinitely on hold and it’s not clear any of these experiences will be the same post-COVID.  

While the outlook on mental health and millennials seems pretty grim, I firmly believe that this generation is well-equipped to emerge better from this crisis. Here’s how…  

Our generation is more open to talking about mental health. We willingly voice our troubles and seek connection in many ways. Having a good day? We post a picture on social media. Having a bad day? We post a picture on social media. This established behavior is growing in the time of COVID-19, despite – or, perhaps because of – the systemic change to health care delivery necessitated by stay-at-home orders. In a world that has been historically plagued by stigma when it comes to mental health, millennials are opening up the conversation and breaking down barriers by simply talking about what was once the elephant in the room. 

We are more likely to seek support. 

Millennials are more open about seeing therapists and needing help. Some have even gone as far to call us the therapy generation. In our research at Ginger, we’ve seen more than half of millennials claiming that they regularly use mental health benefits offered by their employers. When it comes to mental health – we’ve not only helped alleviate the challenge of talking about it, but are changing the culture of what support looks like. 

Millennials are leading the movement toward more accessible care through technology. Issues like finding an available therapist, long wait times, transportation, and treatment preferences have previously been obstacles for millennials and others. The accessibility and convenience of online therapy has encouraged millennial participation, a movement heightened by the pandemic’s physical restrictions. An astonishing 88% of millennials said they would be “more likely to use their mental health benefit if it were available by smartphone at any time” – more than any other generation. 

Uncertainty is the ongoing theme with COVID-19. We all wonder how long this will last, but, also, how post-pandemic life will be changed: how we work, how we shop, how we communicate, and perhaps how we value mental health. Millennials are playing a key role in this transformation. When we can finally take off our masks, walk outside, and hug our friends and family, this generation will have played – and will continue to play – an integral role in changing mental healthcare for the better. 

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