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Is there a different way to respond to the increasing rates of anxiety and depression among the next wave of the workforce?

Throughout the recent decade, there have been many observations made about Generation Z, or those born following 1995. Perhaps one of the most frequented remarks about this generation is their extensive experience with anxiety and depression. A recent study by Pew Research Center titled, “Most U.S. Teens See Anxiety and Depression as a Major Problem Among Their Peers,“ generated an in-depth study around this particular matter.

Pew conducted their studies via online and telephone interviews of 920 teens ages 13-17. Of this demographic, nearly 70 percent cited depression and anxiety as a significant problem among peers, and a mere 26 percent found it as a minor problem. As someone who has battled both of these illnesses, I was not shocked to see these percentages as high as they were. However, the study forced me to poll my demographic of college students and extrinsically analyze the people that I’m frequently in contact with, and how these issues affect them in more specific ways.

As I began to ponder college students and their struggles, I asked myself a couple of primary questions similar to those that the researchers asked: What is affecting everyone in my demographic the most? What are they most anxious about? How does the newfound “tech age” contribute to this plethora of feelings? Do students feel like they can talk about their struggles? Most importantly, what would they want others to know about how they’re feeling? I began to contemplate these questions and imagine potential responses that the greater public might provide to this potentially disheartening array of issues.

Consequently, I took it upon myself to send an anonymous survey to approximately four dozen of my peers to collect more concrete answers rather than mere assumptions. From these results, 85 percent cited anxiety as a significant issue, and about half of the respondents found depression to be a severe issue as well. From the results, I was most intrigued by the responses about what individuals might want others to know about their feelings (the last of the questions above).

There was an assemblage of answers, but I found three to be particularly interesting:

“Nothing. I believe that I must personally overcome any mental issues that arise by myself.”

“I’d like adults to know that most of the time we’d be more than happy to talk to them about stuff. They seem to explode and get upset when we bring up something, and that keeps us from wanting to tell them.”

“A lot of us hide it very well. It is really true that it is the happiest ones you need to pay attention to. Or at least, you shouldn’t ignore them.”

The responses that I chose to single out all had very different messages, which is thought-provoking thinking since they all agreed that mental struggles are a significant problem amongst their peers. However, I found the bulk of my survey had generated nothing more than additional proof to the Pew Report’s findings. Seeing the similarity between the results forced me to venture down an alternate path with a much different question looming. Rather than asking myself, “How are people feeling?”, I began to ask myself, “How might these feelings of anxiety and depression be given an opportunity to change?”

Throughout the course of my life, I have always placed an unnecessarily high level of pressure on myself to succeed. While it can be a remarkably beneficial thing to push yourself to perfection and strive for greatness, it can also be destructive. One failure can send you into a spiral of self-doubt and self-hatred that is extremely hard to chisel your way out of. Through the responses that I collected, lots of individuals seemed to express similar feelings of pressure manifested from within themselves, parents, other elders, and the media. Seeing this immense burden of pressure placed on my peers stimulated my curiosity about whether less external pressure could potentially equate to a healthier mental state. What if we emphasized support and understanding rather than a relentless pursuit of tough love and active shaming? Maybe this could be a measure implemented to help decrease the epidemic of depression and anxiety among the youngest generation.

I want to end this article by addressing the concept that tough love CAN work. There are undoubtedly unique situations where pushing people to their brink serves a purpose, like a Navy SEAL. One can also argue that emphasizing support and less pressure on Gen Z will only result in people being “soft” and degradation to the “hard” reputation of those who came before them. Again this could be true, but one must take into account that people evolve and the same methods cannot work forever.

A quote that comes to mind is that of Benjamin Franklin: “Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.” Times change, and we must change with them. With a world abundant with technology and noise, we cannot raise the next generation and teach them the way that people were taught a hundred years ago. Hopefully, by challenging ourselves to support those around us lovingly, we can help eliminate the epidemic of anxiety and depression, while being as or more productive as those in the past.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis