The mental health crisis among Generation Z in Australia has become a matter of concern for experts and families. The past two decades have brought significant changes to society, and authorities are seeing the impact on the younger generation’s mental well-being and wondering if we have reached a state of emergency.
It’s undeniable that the world has undergone significant changes in the last two decades. These transformations have raised growing concern among parents, educators, psychologists, and other healthcare experts regarding the potential impact on the mental health of Australian youth and young adults. Of special concern is the Generation Z aka ‘Gen Z’.
Results from a recent Australian National Youth Mental Health Survey taken in 2020 -2021 showed Gen Zer’s are reporting the highest rates of anxiety, depression, trauma, stress, loneliness, unemployment, housing stress, educational disruption, eating disorders, substance abuse, and social anxiety, in history.
The crucial question to ask at this point is ‘why?’ What is it about the current state of change in 2023 that is impacting Gen Z so drastically? To help answer this question, I am taking a trip back 20 years through the times I have worked in roles as a primary school teacher, dance teacher, research associate and clinical psychologist and progressively looking at pivotal changes overtime that may account for the current crisis we are facing.
It is 1997, the year I was 15 years old and in grade 10 at Henley high School in Adelaide. My greatest joys that year were being in the specialised dance program, vice-captain of the U16 South Australian State Netball team, hanging out with my friends, reading Dolly Magazines, and watching my favourite movie Clueless starring Alicia Silverstone.
Enjoying a Cornish pasty, Balfour’s pink sprinkle donut and 350ml Fanta was my regular lunch, and I felt pretty radical with my Nokia 8210 mobile phone, which at that stage had no camera or internet. We used desktop computers, had no exposure to online social media, or cyberbullying, communication was solely face to face in real life, and filtered photos and digital enhancing did not exist.
There were certainly issues with drug taking, body image, anxiety and bullying in those times, however it was more influenced from regular teenage drama, peer-related comparisons, family and friend conflict, self-pressure and confidence.
In 1998, the very first Australian Child and Adolescent National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing was conducted among 4,500 13-17 years old. The results showed that equally among boys and girls around 3.6% showed clinical symptoms of depression and anxiety.
What Changed? Generation Z – The diverse, social, visual, technological, and entrepreneurial cohort
Fast forward 15 years, and the life we once knew with teenagers actively outdoors for the majority of time, fully engaged in life, enjoying the sun and a Dolly magazine seem all but a distant memory. We have moved through significant waves of technological advancement. Many argue such progressive tech evolution has had an irreversible negative transformation on society, with the greatest impact on Gen Z.
Looking back, I can remember where I felt the beginnings of such transformation. As a primary school teacher in 2007, I witnessed Apple launch the first iPhone and quickly become the consumer commodity to have amongst students.
Each year thereafter, it became more and more normal to see young people walk around with small computers in their pockets, easily accessible no matter the time of day or night. When I reflect, it almost puts my mind in a state of terror thinking about how quickly I saw children and young adults become grossly obsessed and addicted to the smartphone.
Indeed, in 2010 the global daily time spent on mobile devices was estimated at an average of 32 minutes, and there were around 970 million global social media users. By 2023, the global average time spent on mobile devices is now around 3 hours and 23 minutes per day, with on average 4.76 billion people now using social media (Digital Global Overview Report, 2023).
We also cannot discuss technological advancements without acknowledging the mammoth growth in online gaming. In 2023, the gaming world exploded with around 3.09 billion global users enjoying extraordinary internet connectivity and technology from storefronts such as Xbox Live Marketplace. Possibly the greatest advancement in gaming has been the ability to enjoy it as a shared activity in multiplayer interactivity. This exciting avenue to connect with online friends, with radical features, visual enhancements and capabilities, soon became a form of entertainment that appealed to the masses.
Among Gen Z teens, with games such as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Minecraft, and Fortnite, the number of adolescents who have developed a gaming addiction in the past five years has risen alarmingly.
In fact, the concern is so widespread that in 2018 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared gaming addiction as a viable mental health disorder. Indeed, in my own clinical practice I have recently just finished treating an 18-year-old boy who thankfully made a full recovery from his online gaming addiction.
When I first met him however, he was spending on average 21 hours a day in his bedroom gaming (Fortnite was his main hit of adrenalin). He was so consumed in playing that he would in fact urinate in a bucket beside his bed so that he didn’t have to stop playing and go to the toilet. He had somehow convinced his parents to take him out of mainstream school and transfer to home-schooling, and he had not been anywhere outside of the home in 9 months.
This may sound rather shocking to some millennials or Generation X’rs who would most likely remember playing Super Mario on the Nintendo 64 with cousins on a Sunday afternoon. However, this is the sad reality of gaming addiction that I have seen many times in my clinical practice among Gen Zr’s, and also backed up by many recent large research studies (Djannah, Tentama, & Sinato, 2021)
In the last 3 years, alongside gaming addiction, there has also been an astonishing upsurge of young people (12 – 26 years) reaching out for psychological support for a host of different issues.
In comparison to 10 years ago when we would see the average 15-year-old requesting to see a psychologist for perhaps mild anxiety or depression, now the typical 15-year-old client I see present with multiple, comorbid issues ranging from chronic anxiety, complex trauma, depression, eating disorder symptoms, social media addictions, vaping misuse, cyberbullying, body dysmorphia, mood disorders, personality disorders, agoraphobia, and emotional dysregulation.
Concerningly, self-harm and suicidality has also risen exponentially as a consequence to cope with the weight of all these issues. The National Australian Mental Health Survey in 2021 revealed the annual prevalence of mental health disorders among 16 to 24-year-olds surged from 26% in 2007 to 39% in 2020-21 — an unprecedented statistical increase in 15 years.
One of the most important questions I have asked myself as a clinical psychologist who predominately works with clients from Gen Z, along with many mothers of Gen Z children, is why?
Firstly, let’s talk about who Gen Z are. What drives them emotionally, psychologically, what are their characteristics, and what makes them different to past generations.
Characteristically, they are very independent, self-reliant, pragmatic and driven. Gen Zr’s have never known life without being immersed in a hyper-digital, online connected world. They have never had the experience of building relationships organically face to face as the only means of connection. From the minute they were born they most likely saw their mum or dad’s face glued to a phone, talking to someone on it, or scrolling through social media. Add to that, they most likely had to compete with the smartphone for their parents’ attention from birth.
This lack of intimate connection has inbuilt in many Gen Zr’s a sense of invalidation. While many parents with Gen Z children do try immensely hard to make time for their children, they also are battling the effects of hyperdigitilisation that is made constant in their workplace, media, social life, even schools now upload daily notifications parents must read. And trying to play soccer out the backyard with your child with 100% focus and attention when your phone is pinging sounds of messages and notifications every few minutes is a very hard task.
Members of Gen Z entered schooling at a time when teachers were handed the duty of not only being the classroom teacher but also the lunch box police. Memories of recess and lunch for many Gen Zr’s included an inspected test to see if both they and their parents had faithfully obeyed the laws of healthy eating. Prohibiting ‘junk food’ from entering the school grounds, and fostering a sense of being a bad person if they did not reveal a ‘nude’ lunchbox made up of fruit, veggie sticks, crackers and a sandwich, was all part of their school day.
It is safe to say that I would not have passed the food policing with my Cornish pasty, sprinkle donut and 350mL Fanta. But in my schooling days this was largely accepted. There was no judgment about what children ate, or promotion that certain types of foods were either ‘bad or good’.
As a specialist in eating disorders and body dysmorphia, why this is of great concern is that Gen Z has grown up with this notion of fearing food choice, and rather than promoting nutrition it has actually, for a large majority. led to damaging relationships with food (binge eating, hiding food, restricting food).
Given eating disorders and obesity have skyrocketed to the highest prevalence among 12–24-year-olds in the last 3 years than we have ever seen in history, it is fair to say that Gen Z has also had the extra pressure and stress put on them with simple food choice that older generations did not have to deal with.
Outside of the typical characteristics and background of Gen Z , possibly the greatest factors contributing to the current state of mental health are firstly what I discussed above, the impact of technological advancements. The amount of time they spend on their phones with the internet, social media (Tik Tok, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube) and gaming. All ushered within a digitally enhanced world.
In my clinical opinion this is by and large one of the greatest drivers of mental health decline among Gen Z. However, secondly, the devastation of the Pandemic has impacted Gen Z much worse than any other generation. Being in their teens and early twenties, this stage of life is traditionally characterised by education and study, socialising with friends at parties, BBQs, out at bars or nightclubs, playing team sports, travel, shopping, and going out or hanging at a friend’s place.
The sheer social, academic and economic limitations placed on Gen Z during the pandemic with nearly two years of lockdowns saw most of their goals and dreams vanish, loneliness, unemployment, and profound anxiety about their future. They were forced to be home schooled, undergo university lectures via Zoom, cancel all travel plans, social engagements, and a lot of Gen Zr’s struggled to establish themselves in the workforce due to closures. In many ways, Gen Z has been badly comprised, stripped of their social rite of passage, and left with deep psychological and socioeconomical scars.
If we take this entire picture collaboratively, inclusive of Gen Z’s characteristics, values, morals and beliefs, alongside the devastation of the pandemic and living their life through the glass of a digital online world, it becomes quite clear how we have reached this point of mental health crisis among Gen Z.
The question of whether Australia has reached a state of emergency is clearly answered in light of the estimated 200% increase in demand for psychological services over the past two years. Currently, meeting this demand is impossible due to a dire shortage of available clinicians, healthcare facilities, and funding across the country. Therefore, it is abundantly clear that the answer to this question is a resounding YES!
Disclaimer: This article provides general information only, and does not constitute health or medical advice. If you have any concerns regarding your physical or mental health, seek immediate medical attention.