Addressing the unprecedented behavioral-health challenges facing Generation Z

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Nearly two years after the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States, Gen Zers, ranging from middle school students to early professionals, are reporting higher rates of anxiety, depression, and distress than any other age group.1 The mental-health challenges among this generation are so concerning that US surgeon general Vivek Murthy issued a public health advisory on December 7, 2021, to address the “youth mental health crisis” exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.2

A series of consumer surveys and interviews conducted by McKinsey indicate stark differences among generations, with Gen Z reporting the least positive life outlook, including lower levels of emotional and social well-being than older generations. One in four Gen Z respondents reported feeling more emotionally distressed (25 percent), almost double the levels reported by millennial and Gen X respondents (13 percent each), and more than triple the levels reported by baby boomer respondents (8 percent).3 And the COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified this challenge (see sidebar, “The disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic”). While consumer surveys are, of course, subjective and Gen Z is not the only generation to experience distress, employers, educators, and public health leaders may want to consider the sentiment of this emerging generation as they plan for the future.

In our sample, Gen Z respondents were more likely to report having been diagnosed with a behavioral-health condition (for example, mental or substance use disorder) than either Gen Xers or baby boomers.4 Gen Z respondents were also two to three times more likely than other generations to report thinking about, planning, or attempting suicide in the 12-month period spanning late 2019 to late 2020.

Gen Z also reported more unmet social needs than any other generation.5 Fifty-eight percent of Gen Z reported two or more unmet social needs, compared with 16 percent of people from older generations. These perceived unmet social needs, including income, employment, education, food, housing, transportation, social support, and safety, are associated with higher self-reported rates of behavioral-health conditions. As indicated in a recent nationwide survey, people with poor mental health were two times as likely to report an unmet basic need as those with good mental health, and four times as likely to have three or more unmet basic needs.6

As these young adults work to develop their resilience, Gen Zers may seek out the holistic approach to health they have come to expect, which includes physical health, behavioral health, and social needs, as future students, employees, and customers.

Characteristics of Gen Z consumers in the healthcare ecosystem

Gen Z’s specific needs suggest that improving their behavioral healthcare will require stakeholders to increase access and deliver appropriate, timely services.

Gen Z is less likely to seek help

Gen Z respondents were more likely to report having a behavioral-health diagnosis but less likely to report seeking treatment compared with other generations (Exhibit 1). For instance, Gen Z is 1.6 to 1.8 times more likely to report not seeking treatment for a behavioral-health condition than millennials. There are several factors that may account for Gen Z’s lack of seeking help: developmental stage, disengagement from their healthcare, perceived affordability, and stigma associated with mental or substance use disorders within their families and communities.7

Gen Z respondents with a self-reported behavioral-health diagnosis were less likely than those from older generations to report seeking treatment.

Gen Z respondents identified as less engaged in their healthcare than other respondents (Exhibit 2). About two-thirds of Gen Z respondents fell into lower engagement segments of healthcare consumers, compared with one-half of respondents from other generations. Gen Z and other people in these less engaged segments reported that they feel less in control of their health and lifespan, are less health-conscious, and are less proactive about maintaining good health. One-third of Gen Z respondents fell into the least engaged segment, who reported the lowest motivation to improve their health and the least comfort talking about behavioral-health challenges with doctors.8

Gen Z respondents report falling into less-engaged segments of healthcare consumers, compared with older generations.

Another driver for Gen Z’s reduced help-seeking may be the perceived affordability of mental-health services. One out of four Gen Z respondents said they could not afford mental-health services, which had the lowest perceived affordability of all services surveyed.9 Across the board, Americans with mental and substance use disorders bear a disproportionate share of out-of-pocket healthcare costs for a range of reasons, including the fact that many behavioral-health providers do not accept insurance. “I found the perfect therapist for me but I couldn’t afford her, even with insurance,” said one Gen Z respondent. “The absolute biggest barrier to gaining mental-health treatment has been financial,” added another.

In addition, stigma associated with mental and substance use disorders and a lack of family support may be a substantial barrier in seeking mental healthcare. Many Gen Zers rely on parents for transportation or health insurance and may fear interacting with their parents about mental-health topics. This factor is particularly relevant for communities of color, who report perceiving a higher level of stigma associated with behavioral-health conditions.10 Children of immigrants also may internalize guilt because of their parents’ sacrifices or may have behavioral-health concerns minimized by their parents, who may state or think their children “have it much easier” than they did growing up.11

Gen Z relies on emergency care, social media, and digital tools when they do seek help

When they do seek support for behavioral-health issues, Gen Z may not be turning to regular outpatient mental-health services and instead may rely on emergency care, social media, and digital tools.

Gen Zers rely on acute sites of care more often than older generations, with Gen Z respondents one to four times more likely to report using the ER, and two to three times more likely to report using crisis services or behavioral-health urgent care in the past 12 months. Gen Z also makes up nearly three-quarters of Crisis Text Line’s users.12 One Gen Z respondent expressed her frustration, saying, “Seems [like the] only option is an emergency room visit, otherwise I have to wait weeks to see a psychiatrist.”

Almost one in four Gen Zers also reported that it is “extremely” or “very” challenging to get help during a behavioral-health crisis. This lack of access is concerning for a generation two to three times more likely to report seeking treatment in the past 12 months for suicidal ideation or attempted suicide, than any other generation.

Many Gen Zers also indicated their first step in managing behavioral-health challenges was going to TikTok or Reddit for advice from other young people, following therapists on Instagram, or downloading relevant apps. This reliance on social media may be due, in part, to the provider shortages in many parts of the country: 64 percent of counties in the United States have a shortage of mental-health providers. Furthermore, 56 percent of counties in the United States are without a psychiatrist (corresponding to 9 percent of the total population), and 73 percent of counties are without a child and adolescent psychiatrist (corresponding to 19 percent of the total population).13Telehealth: A quarter-trillion-dollar post-COVID-19 reality?,” McKinsey, July 9, 2021; Vulnerable Populations dashboard, McKinsey’s Center for Societal Benefit through Healthcare, accessed December 1, 2021.

Gen Z is less satisfied with the behavioral-health services they receive

Gen Zers say the behavioral healthcare system overall is not meeting their expectations—Gen Zers who received behavioral healthcare were less likely to report being satisfied with the services they received than other generations. For example, compared with older generations, Gen Z reports lower satisfaction with behavioral-health services received through outpatient counseling/therapy (3.7 out of 5.0 for Gen Z, compared with 4.1 for Gen X) or intensive outpatient (3.1 for Gen Z, compared with 3.8 for older generations).14 One Gen Z respondent said, “Struggling to find a psychologist whom I was comfortable with and cared enough to remember my name and what we did the week before” was the most significant barrier to care. Another said, “I have trust issues and find it difficult to talk with therapists about my problems. I also had a very bad experience with a therapist, which made this problem worse.”

Although we have seen high penetration of telehealth in psychiatry (share of telehealth outpatient and office visits claims were at 50 percent in February 2021),15 Gen Z has the lowest satisfaction with tele-behavioral health (Gen Z rates their satisfaction with telehealth at a 3.8 out of 5.0, compared with older generations, who rate it 4.1) and digital app/tools (3.5 out of 5.0 for Gen Z, compared with 4.0 for older generations).16 Around telehealth, Gen Zers cited reasons for dissatisfaction such as telehealth therapy feeling “less official” or “less professional,” as well as more difficult to form a trusting connection with a therapist. For apps, Gen Z respondents noted a lack of personalization, as well as a lack of diversity—both in terms of the racial and ethnic diversity of the stories they presented, and in the problems that the apps offered tools to address. In creating and improving behavioral-health tools, it is crucial to employ a user-centered design approach to develop functionality and experiences that Gen Zers actually want.

In creating and improving behavioral-health tools, it is crucial to employ a user-centered design approach to develop functionality and experiences that Gen Zers actually want.

Gen Z cares about diversity when choosing a healthcare provider

Racial and ethnic diversity in the behavioral-health workforce is also important. According to McKinsey’s COVID-19 Consumer Survey, racial and ethnic minority respondents reported valuing racial and ethnic diversity when choosing a physician, citing their physician’s race more frequently than White respondents as a consideration.17 Because Gen Z cares deeply about diversity, there are opportunities to integrate care and early intervention by offering a more racially and ethnically diverse behavioral-health workforce and culturally relevant digital tools.18

Potential stakeholder actions to address the needs of Generation Z

In our article “Unlocking whole person care through behavioral health,” we outline six potential actions integral to improving the quality of care and experience for millions with behavioral-health conditions. Many of those levers apply to Gen Z, but further tailoring is needed to best meet the needs of this emerging generation. Promising areas to explore could include the emerging role of digital and telehealth; the need for stronger community-based response to behavioral-health crises; better meeting the needs of Gen Z where they live, work, and go to school; promoting mental-health literacy; investing in behavioral health at parity with physical health; and supporting a holistic approach that embraces behavioral, physical, and social aspects of health.

Need for action now

Gen Z is our next generation of leaders, activists, and politicians; many of them have already taken on adult responsibilities as they start climate movements, lead social justice marches, and drive companies to align more closely with their values. Healthcare leaders, educators, and employers all have a role to play in supporting the behavioral health of Gen Z. By taking a tailored, generational approach to designing messages, products, and services, stakeholders can meaningfully improve the behavioral health of Gen Z and help them achieve their full potential. This investment could be viewed as a down payment on our future that will bear social and economic returns for years to come.

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