4 Things We All Need to Learn About Mental Health

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

IIt’s been a rough few weeks for mental health. As if the constant threat of disease wasn’t enough of a mindfuck, our new social-distancing lifestyle is causing what TIME magazine recently called “an emotional pandemic” of anxiety and fear.

But just as younger adults seem to sometimes fare better against Covid-19, they may also be better equipped, mentally and emotionally, to weather this pandemic. From the Great Recession to our toxic political landscape, people who came of age during our most recent national crises have developed our own way of thinking about mental health — one that people of any age can adopt to make it through the weeks to come. Here are four of our survival strategies.

1. Redefine “healthy”

The wellness boom of the past several years has been fueled largely by millennials, perhaps in part because their health is declining faster than that of previous generations. A survey by Blue Cross Blue Shield found that as they age, millennials are experiencing higher rates of hypertension and high cholesterol, along with depression and hyperactivity, than Gen Xers.

And the gig-economy workforce, which skews younger (one report found that adults under 34 are more likely to be gig workers than any other age group), can exacerbate mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and burnout while at the same time offering only spotty health insurance.

To deal with these stressors, younger generations tend to look at health more holistically than older generations, relying on techniques like mindfulness, meditation, and careful nutrition (even avocado toast, which has evolved into shorthand for youthful indulgence, is high in vitamins and minerals) to stay in physical and mental shape. “While Millennials want support for traditional things like physical activity and nutrition, they also want support across all aspects of health [including] emotional/mental health, adequate sleep and positive family relationships,” according to a report by Welltok, a software company that serves the health care industry. Other market research shows that Gen Z has a similarly expansive definition of what it means to be healthy.

But even if you’re not about to start meditating and pounding green juice every morning, it’s easy to infuse a little mindfulness into daily life. Move more slowly through your mundane chores. Practice gratitude whenever you can. Be attuned to what your mind and body need, and be gentle in the demands you make of them when you’re feeling worn out.

2. Make your mental health a topic of conversation

For younger generations, topics that were once taboo are firmly out in the open: money, sex, and marriage.

Mental health is also on that list as younger adults abandon the stigma that’s historically surrounded mental illness. We’re more comfortable letting people know when we’re going through tough mental times and need to step back from obligations, reduce our workloads, or even leave our jobs entirely — more than half of millennials and three-quarters of Gen Zers have quit over mental health. I know that I’ve reached out to editors and let them know I’d be late filing assignments due to my mental health needs, something that would probably seem imprudent or even impossible to members of my parents’ generation.

“We are better at reflecting on our mental health needs than earlier generations, which helps to address stigma for future generations,” says Krystal Jagoo, a social worker and former therapist.

This is partially because we grew up with the internet, especially social media, which mainstreamed mental health literacy and gave us all a vocabulary to describe things previous generations experienced but couldn’t name.

“Everybody’s on social media … and there are plenty of us who are open about just what we need and what’s not working,” says mental health advocate Tonya Russell. “And the more we talk about things, the more it normalizes them.” So when you’re feeling especially stressed or anxious, don’t feel shy about expressing your feelings to an understanding friend. It really does wonders to get things off your chest — and research shows it can even help you cope with trauma.

3. Look to the pros, online and off

Speaking of talking about your feelings: Younger adults are good about getting help when we need it. Millennials have been dubbed the “Therapy Generation,” and both they and Gen Zers are more likely to seek mental health treatment than boomers or Gen Xers.

We also look to the internet for information about self-care of the self-directed variety. Russell has observed that younger millennials, along with Gen Zers, are especially likely to incorporate technology into their self-care regimens. Apps based on cognitive behavioral therapy, while not a substitute for professional treatment, can help you distinguish between facts and feelings — which is also Russell’s top tip for coping during these challenging times.

“It can be easy to say, ‘I’ll never recover from this financially’ or ‘I’m gonna gain 20 pounds because I’m in the house,’” she explains. “That’s how you’re feeling … it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to come out ahead.” Many therapists are finding ways to meet with clients via Zoom or FaceTime, and a therapist can help you sort out your quarantine-era fears and anxieties. Meditation and breathing apps can also help take the pressure off, particularly during self-isolation.

4. Insist on optimism

A survey from Northwestern Mutual identified optimism as a defining feature of both millennials and Gen Z: Compared with older adults, both generations are more confident in their futures and their ability to achieve their goals. And millennials, in particular, are more likely to make self-improvement goals than previous generations and spend our (limited) funds on achieving them. While boomers are known for their gloomy outlook, their younger counterparts’ forward-thinking obsession with all things self-improvement helps drive a market worth nearly $10 billion.

Especially in times of crisis, choosing to remain positive and engage in emotionally uplifting activities gets back to the radical love that African American activist Audre Lorde envisioned when she popularized the term “self-care” in 1988. “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” she wrote, somewhat prophetically. “It is self-preservation.”

American freelancer in Istanbul writing about culture, mental health, race & travel. Bylines everywhere from Al Jazeera to Zora. Tw: @Ruth_Terry | IG: @ruth.ist

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