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Stress in America 2020 Survey Signals a Growing National Mental Health Crisis

October 22, 2020

Stress in America 2020 Survey Signals a Growing National Mental Health Crisis

American Psychological Association sounds alarm about potential long-term impacts for Gen Z; offers ways people can better cope during uncertainty

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WASHINGTON — Stress from COVID-19 — along with stress related to health care, the economy, racism and the presidential election — is seriously threatening the mental health of our country, particularly our youngest generation, according to a new national survey from the American Psychological Association.

Stress in AmericaTM 2020: A National Mental Health Crisis, conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of APA, found that nearly 8 in 10 adults (78%) say the coronavirus pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives, while 3 in 5 (60%) say the number of issues America faces is overwhelming to them. Gen Z adults, on average, say their stress level during the prior month is 6.1, on a scale from 1 to 10 where 1 means “little to no stress” and 10 means “a great deal of stress.” This compares with a reported average stress level among all adults of 5.0.

Nearly 1 in 5 adults (19%) say their mental health is worse than it was at this time last year. By generation, 34% of Gen Z adults report worse mental health, followed by Gen X (21%), millennials (19%), boomers (12%) and older adults (8%). Gen Z adults are the most likely to report experiencing common symptoms of depression, with more than 7 in 10 noting that in the prior two weeks they felt so tired that they sat around and did nothing (75%), felt very restless (74%), found it hard to think properly or concentrate (73%), felt lonely (73%), or felt miserable or unhappy (71%).

“This survey confirms what many mental health experts have been saying since the start of the pandemic: Our mental health is suffering from the compounding stressors in our lives,” said Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD, APA’s chief executive officer. “This compounding stress will have serious health and social consequences if we don’t act now to reduce it. We’re already seeing this with some of the youngest members of our nation, who just seven months into this crisis are beginning to show signs of serious mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.”

Changes to school are negatively impacting Gen Z. Most Gen Z teens ages 13–17 (81%) report they have experienced negative impacts of pandemic-related school closures, and half (51%) say the pandemic makes planning for their future feel impossible. Like teens, 2 in 3 Gen Z adults in college (67%) say the pandemic makes planning for their future feel impossible. Further, most Gen Z adults in college (87%) report education is a significant source of stress in their lives.

“Loneliness and uncertainly about the future are major stressors for adolescents and young adults, who are striving to find their places in the world, both socially, and in terms of education and work. The pandemic and its economic consequences are upending youths’ social lives and their visions for their futures,” said Emma Adam, PhD, Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Education and Social Policy. “We must work to provide social, emotional and mental health supports to this generation, while providing much-needed financial assistance and educational and work opportunities for youth. Both comfort now and hope for the future are essential for the long-term well-being of this generation.”

The survey also indicates most Americans are not getting the support they need. The majority of adults (61%) say they could have used more emotional support than they received over the prior 12 months, with more than 8 in 10 Gen Z adults (82%) saying the same.

“As a society, we must galvanize our resources to support teens and young adults,” said Evans. “We need to stand with them to fight systemic injustices, which can be a source of stress relief, while supporting them in building their resilience. The pandemics of racism and COVID will not be overcome quickly. We all need to learn skills to help us manage our stress while we fight for a society that is more equitable, resilient, and innovative.”

The report includes insights on specific ways policymakers, civic leaders, educators and parents can support those who are most affected. Such strategies include:

  • Facilitating access to mental health services during and after the pandemic, including an expansion of congressional pandemic relief efforts that include substantial funding for mental health and support services. This also should include investing in prevention and treatment, continued support and expansion of telehealth services and increasing funding to better support school mental health services.
  • Creating new and safe opportunities to connect with family, culture and community. These connections are fundamental to youth development and well-being.
  • Help young people observe important milestones in new ways, rather than putting them off until everything is “normal” again. Encourage them to be the generation that reinvents society by creating new celebrations and traditions that are meaningful.
  • Provide innovative educational, work, training and employment opportunities targeted at this generation of young adults. They need to identify new opportunities and interests that help them see a path forward for themselves.
  • Acknowledge the sacrifices that have been made by Gen Z. This generation has been forced to give up social involvement that is critical to their development, milestones such as graduations and proms, and even their education. Acknowledging this sacrifice could encourage Gen Z to continue the difficult job of refraining from normal social activity, and elevate their actions as a solution to overcoming the pandemic’s global impact.