Trigger Warning: This article talks about suicide, depression, and mental illness.
Many posts and memes from the younger generations — younger millennials and older Gen X specifically — today show a dark trend that reveals a lot about our current mindset. Between tweets about people being excited at the prospect of possibly dying from COVID-19, to memes about being upset that one has to go to work because they didn’t die in their sleep, this generation projects a unique attitude, and one that requires more attention.
While most of the people sharing this content will generally just pass it off as a joke, it’s troubling to note that a lot of notorious warning signs of someone who could have suicidal thoughts are displayed. According to suicidepreventionhotline.org, some of the warning signs that someone may be at risk are: talking about wanting to kill themselves, sleeping too little or too much, acting anxious, or isolating oneself. While there are several more things to look out for — and I strongly urge you to familiarize yourself with them if you haven’t already — these few jump out at me as being key characteristics of the culture that has emerged in this demographic.
Most of us won’t deny that we may genuinely feel depressed, overwhelmed and hopeless about our futures, despite humorous approaches to coping. However, once this became more common, and less of an anomaly, people began to take it less seriously. It’s normal to see things on social media where a young person jokes about the fact that energy drinks are taking forever to kill them, for example. It’s to the point where we don’t even realize it may be unhealthy anymore.
Young adults certainly witness more disasters than previous generations. For a lot of us, some of their first memories are watching the Twin Towers falling on 9/11. Our lives have never known an America not engaged in war. Additionally, we’ve grown up in the era of mass shootings. Over the years, we watched as our orientations for school slowly began to adopt drills for mass shooter emergencies. This became commonplace in our lives, to be mentally prepared for the possibility of going to school one day and never coming home.
On top of these major moments of violence in America, we’ve also witnessed huge economic recessions in 2008, and now the crisis brought on by COVID-19. The prospect of global warming accelerating to a point of no return during our lifetimes has also cast a shadow of dread. While these things aren’t necessarily unique to our generation, experiencing them at the same time as many other crises during formative years has led to a bleak outlook on the world.
It can be difficult to estimate how much these things have an impact on our mental health, especially to the casual, untrained observer. My instinct is to assume that I see my generation’s trauma as especially severe because I’m a part of it. Individuals like my parents who don’t follow people my age on Twitter for example probably don’t analyze it the same exact way.
However, some statistics suggest that the generational gloom I’ve observed does have some validity. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that people, regardless of gender, between the ages of 18 and 25 have the highest rate of experiencing a major depressive episode at 13.1%.
Pew Research data shows a similar trend. In 2008, 13% of U.S. teenagers aged 12–17 experienced a depressive episode in the past year. This went up significantly from a study in 2007 that showed a percentage of 8%.
While teenagers and young adults struggle with mental health issues often, for a variety of reasons, the overall trend we witness seems to be more serious than the typical life phase transition difficulties. The website Psychology Today published an article citing smartphones and the increase in sleep deficiencies as perpetuating generational depression.
Most of us in this age cohort read this conclusion with an eye-roll, tired of hearing about how smartphones have single-handedly caused every bad thing that has ever happened to us, at least according to many of our elders. But the intense connectivity does grant us one thing that previous generations did not have to endure. We gain exposure to so much more about the world.
We read people from across the world’s posts on social media talking about violence in their country. We see racist TikToks, along with dozens of comments by people condoning the behavior. We have access to scientific projections for climate change and the specific devastation that could bring in our own lifetimes. We have endless ways to depress ourselves, and virtually nothing we can do to stop disasters from happening.
Our powerless and at times hopeless feelings, however, do give us an incredible gift. Because of these things we’ve experienced, we’re kinder, more compassionate than generations before us. So many global issues feel like life or death for us because we don’t feel immune to the horrible things that happen in the world. These things are very real, and they happen to the people we know. Our lives feel like a ticking time bomb a lot of the time as many different political and environmental disasters all seem to gain more intensity with every passing week.
We’re passionate, and not just about our own well-being. We fight for other people too because we know what it feels like to have the world against you. We will inherit an unfriendly world as we grow to fill the shoes left before us. Our outlook will be radically different from the generations before us. Maybe our world can be, too.