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The Mental Health of Millennials

By Rachel Patla, MA, LAC, NCC

Are millennials more prone to anxiety and depression than previous generations?

What exactly is a millennial? According to the vast amount of information available on Google, I can best summarize the definition of a millennial as someone born between the mid 1980s and the mid 1990s. Millennials definitely seem to have unique traits when compared with other generations. We have been described as civic-minded, trophy kids. We are more liberal with our opinions and dare I say, narcissistic. Basically, we all think we’re special. We are also more anxious and depressed.

I often wonder the reason for this. I’m not sure if it is because we are open to discussing mental health in general, or if my generation is indeed more vulnerable to mental unrest. Could it be there is less importance placed on family and social dynamics and more importance placed on technology? Are we less social in person and more social online? Maybe we are more insightful. Or maybe we are highly influenced by the extreme level of omniscience offered to us by the media. Gone are the days when people could make their own decisions, opinions, and judgments without it being broadcasted into our TVs, computer screens, and phones. There is very little privacy anymore.

There definitely exists some positive aspects of this. More people are talking about mental health and illness than ever before. Our mental health treatment systems are getting better and stigma is lessening. But how does it explain the increasing amounts of diagnosis of major depression or anxiety disorders in young adults? One avenue to explain the rise is that in previous generations people just kept mental illness hidden. They suffered in silence and didn’t comprehend what was happening to them. They were fearful of what others would say and think. They were embarrassed by appointments with “the good doctor” to get pills that would hopefully ease symptoms. The information available to doctors and the public was pitiful and ever changing. Diagnoses were not completely understood and went by different names and diagnostic criteria every few years. Not only that, but psychiatrists had vastly different opinions on certain diagnoses. Movies and TV shows displayed the mentally ill as terrifying characters and deinstitutionalization left the country with a large mentally ill homeless population. Even in the all-inclusive 1990s seeing a psychiatrist and going to therapy was still taboo.

Let’s fast forward to the present. Another possible explanation for the prevalence of depressed and anxious millennials is a higher rate of sensitivity felt by my generation. In this context sensitivity does not mean delicate but it refers to being so empathetic and intuitive to surrounding emotions that one might become mentally and physically drained.

“How to Cope with Being a Hyper Sensitive Person (HSP),” “Feeling the Feels and the Top 8 Ways to Deal.” These are some invented titles similar to buzz culture articles I’ve read in the past.

This is where I will introduce a term I use quite frequently, which is “overpathologizing.”

Overpathologizing has become the new normal, which is ironic because its definition is something that is characterized as psychologically abnormal. An example of this I experience frequently is hearing someone say, “The weather is making me depressed,” or “This is giving me anxiety, I can’t even deal.” Sounds common right? Well that phenomenon is making us more comfortable pathologizing ourselves and more importantly, it’s taking away from the seriousness of actually having depression or anxiety. One could argue these are just adjectives, but they are not. What I think of myself when I’m feeling anxious is not really anxiety, and when I say I’m feeling depressed, I’m actually just feeling sad or down. These are completely normal emotions that we all experience. Anxiety and depression are not normal, everyday feelings. They can be debilitating and interfere with your daily life. They can make it impossible for you to get out of bed, take a shower, eat, sleep, talk to people, or sometimes even leave the house. Hopefully you can understand my frustration when I hear people overpathologize normal emotions. These diagnoses exist for a reason.

We live in a time where everything is out in the open and millennials seems to have started this trend of over sharing. This can be both good and bad. Mental health has come a long way in recent decades, and being more comfortable talking about it has definitely played a key role. But normalizing serious symptoms into everyday conversation is a negative trend. Hopefully after reading this you will be able to take notice of when this is happening. Trust me, you’ll hear it everywhere whether it be in real time or on TV. As a millennial, I can safely say that I have called out my peers on this before. Being empathetic is one thing, but not knowing the difference between sadness, grief, and clinical depression or nervousness, agitation, and anxiety is completely different.