For all the emphasis many societies place on youth, it’s a difficult time to be young. In May 2022, the McKinsey Health Institute (MHI) surveyed 6,000 Generation Z respondents in ten European countries to understand their perspectives on mental health, particularly in the context of an unprecedented moment of global and regional crises.1 What MHI found was consistent with what respondents in the United States said in January 2022: Gen Z reports poorer mental health when compared with older generations, including millennials. At play are specific external triggers: nearly half of Gen Z respondents cite a high level of distress due to climate change, while 41 percent list distress related to the war in Ukraine. More than a fourth said COVID-19 caused them high distress.
Gen Z respondents, however, appear to have a more nuanced framework around the stigma surrounding mental illness.2 In Europe, Gen Z seems less inclined to stigmatize or discriminate against people with mental illness, even though they do stigmatize themselves. Negative attitudes around mental illnesses, aimed at oneself or others, can prevent people from discussing their mental-health conditions (for more on stigma, see sidebar “Defining stigma”).
The personal, professional, and educational networks serving Gen Z in Europe can benefit from a better understanding of specific challenges facing this generation. To that end, in the exhibits below, we share more of what European Gen Z respondents cite as their primary mental-health concerns, as well as some potential paths to offer better support (for more on the methodology, see sidebar “Methodology”).
In most surveyed countries, more Gen Z respondents report poor and worsening mental health than those in other generations
Approximately one in five Gen Z respondents in Europe report poor or very poor mental health, which is more than any other generation, and five times more than baby boomers. In the US Gen Z survey, one in four respondents reported being emotionally distressed. More female Gen Z respondents in Europe report poor mental health compared with their male counterparts.1
Nearly one in four Gen Z respondents report their mental health worsening over the past three years. This trend is also higher for Gen Z than for any other generation.
Physical health is the only dimension in which Gen Z doesn’t report the highest proportion of poor or very poor health.
An unprecedented moment of global and regional crises is contributing to the distress of Gen Z
Forty-seven percent of Gen Z respondents report high levels of distress due to global climate change, 41 percent to the war in Ukraine, and 28 percent to COVID-19.
The level of distress varies by country:
- A higher proportion of Turkish, Spanish, and Italian Gen Z respondents report distress due to global climate change than their other European peers.
- Turkish Gen Z respondents report the highest levels of distress due to the war in Ukraine. In addition, across all ten countries, 55 percent of Gen Z respondents who self-identify as refugees or asylum-seekers report high levels of distress due to the war in Ukraine, compared with 40 percent for other respondents.
- Italian Gen Z respondents report the highest levels of distress due to COVID-19.
Gen Z respondents are understanding of someone with a mental-health condition
Around 47 percent of Gen Z respondents with a mental illness endorse sentiments of self-stigma, which is less than millennials (52 percent) but more than Gen X (42 percent) and baby boomers (29 percent). Gen Z respondents are more likely to say that mental illness is the result of poor upbringing or of a character flaw.
However, these negative perceptions of mental illness don’t seem to result in negative attitudes toward people in recovery from a mental illness: two in three Gen Z respondents would be willing to continue a relationship with a friend who is in recovery from a mental illness, and more than half say they would live with someone who is in recovery.
While Gen Z respondents report high rates of self-stigma and social stigma, this may not inhibit their willingness to discuss their mental health with others or their acceptance of people with mental illnesses.
Gen Z respondents are most comfortable talking with a friend about their mental-health conditions
Only 37 percent of Gen Z respondents report that they would be comfortable talking about their mental-health conditions with a family member, compared with approximately 50 percent for other generations.
An average of 44 percent of Gen Z respondents report that they would be comfortable talking to a doctor or a therapist. Roughly half say that they would be comfortable talking to a friend about their mental-health conditions.
Less than a third of all respondents report being comfortable talking about their mental-health conditions with colleagues or work supervisors; for Gen Z, the number is even lower. This indicates that employers may want to reflect on how younger workers perceive acceptance at work.
Schools can facilitate dialogue on mental health among Gen Z
Between 70 and 89 percent of Gen Z student respondents report that their schools provide behavioral-health resources, but there is room to improve, as approximately 30 percent say that either the school doesn’t provide resources or that they don’t know whether or which resources are available at school.
Gen Z respondents report using more of their school’s digital behavioral-health resources such as telehealth and app-based resources. However, they also say those are less useful than mental-health online training and in-person resources such as peer support networks, workshops on coping with behavioral health issues, and counseling.
As we noted previously, many Gen Z survey respondents say that their first step in managing behavioral-health challenges is to go to social media for advice from others, following therapists, or downloading relevant apps.1 Globally, schools—in addition to employers, healthcare professionals, and parents—may wish to examine how technology can offer quicker access to reliable and meaningful support for Gen Z mental health.
Employers also have a role to play in Gen Z mental health
At work, direct support1 for the mental-health needs of employees is increasingly important to Gen Z when considering an employer. Given that Gen Z is expected to make up about a third of the workforce by 2030,2 it will be critical for organizations to consider these shifting expectations and the rising bar for providing mental-health support. This will continue to be a factor of growing importance to recruitment and retention going forward.
By highlighting valued tools, such as digital self-help or peer counselors, leaders can show they understand the importance Gen Z places on their mental health.
Gen Z mental health should be a priority
In all ten countries, the survey shows those entering the adult stage of their lives are facing stressful personal and global events with trepidation but hope. Gen Z reflects the next cohort of future teachers, executives, advocates, and parents. It may fall to them one day to shape the path for the world they want to live in. But no one is alone: all stakeholders can benefit from recognizing what respondents are saying about their lives, and then consider concrete tactics that can offer immediate help. By highlighting valued tools, such as digital self-help or peer counselors, leaders can show they understand the importance Gen Z places on their mental health. All of us can be of service in the challenges that lay ahead.
Ultimately, no matter the age, mental-health supports create meaningful differences for individuals and institutions. The McKinsey Health Institute shares a core belief that promotion, prevention, and early intervention to support mental health are key to adding years to life and life to years.
MHI is an enduring, non-profit-generating global entity within McKinsey. MHI strives to catalyze actions across continents, sectors, and communities to achieve material improvements in health, empowering people to lead their best possible lives. MHI sees supporting youth mental health as essential to adding years to life and life to years.