Stepping up to handle the mental health needs of Gen Z

Few of us have fond memories of our teenage years, myself included. Now imagine being 16 again during a pandemic and not seeing friends in person for more than a year. Plus, you’re glued to a device that tells you all about the bad stuff happening in the world … or the amazing, curated lives that look so different from yours.

We know that teens face a growing mental health crisis—and that this is a critical time to intervene. About half of all lifetime mental illnesses develop by age 14 and 75% by the age of 24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Globally, depression is the fourth leading cause of illness and disability among adolescents ages 15 to 19 years, according to the World Health Organization.

Meanwhile, this is a population that struggles to access the care they need. The percentage of young adults ages 18 to 25 with mental illness who receive mental health services is less than 40%, which ranks lower than older adults.

As a former journalist and now a venture capitalist at OMERS Ventures focused on digital health, one of the biggest opportunities I see is to partner to serve our adolescents to help influence future outcomes.

“Gen Z is poised to have an outsized impact on the healthcare system,” said Alyssa Jaffee, a partner at 7wireVentures. “However, the system has largely ignored this generation believing that they don’t care,” she added. “The reality is that they care quite deeply.”

There is room for major impact because Gen Z doesn’t feel the same stigma around mental health that their parents do.

A growing number of therapists are on TikTok talking with teens in a style they can relate to, which is removing some barriers to accessing care. And Gen Z-ers, far more than Millennials, are talking publicly about their own experiences getting help.

Some say that’s one positive aspect of social media in their lives.

As Madison Campbell, founder of Leda Health, a company working on sexual assault prevention, put it: “I think we live in a world where the culture is changing, at least among young women, to be like ‘it’s cool to go to therapy.’ ” Campbell, a Gen Z founder in her mid-20s, said that if you scroll through platforms like TikTok, you’ll find hundreds of videos explaining terms like “gaslighting,” which refers to the act of undermining another person’s reality by denying facts. For her, that was a real light-bulb moment in looking back at her own life and thinking through her own experiences in a new way.

But smartphones can also serve as a rabbit hole.

“Our generation grew up around Snapchat and YouTube,” said Nathan, 17, a high school student from California. “As much as I hate these apps and want to let them go, I feel like I have to keep them because I need to communicate with my friends.”

Nathan said that when someone posts on Snapchat and Instagram, all he sees is “people looking their best.” He said there’s an expectation of “body perfection” that generates both insecurity and anxiety among teens.

Digital health entrepreneurs can use these platforms to reach young people who aren’t always a priority for traditional providers since young people are relatively healthy and come with myriad complexities related to privacy and consent.

Young children have one decision-maker; their parents, said Alex Alvarado, CEO of Daybreak Health, a start-up that helps teens struggling with anxiety and depression. With teens, there are two consumer decision-makers. “Any solution in the digital health space needs to be able to balance both stakeholders carefully,” he explained.

Another challenge is to match the teen to a provider who truly understands them.

Teens in rural areas, minorities and/or those in the LGBTQ+ community may struggle.

“LGBTQ+ adolescents and youth of color have specific considerations, such as increased mental health stigma in some communities,” said Solome Tibebu, director of the Upswing Fund, which is dedicated to adolescent mental health.

Making matters more complex, many states have different rules related to the age of consent for seeking therapy. That includes consent related to medication and inpatient treatment, notes Dr. Monika Roots, a psychiatrist specializing in teens. And mental health providers must share some information with parents for safety reasons. That requires a lot of transparency upfront about the limits of doctor-patient confidentiality, she said.

Rolling out solutions that work in this space isn’t easy. But without these tools in place, experts say it’ll be a challenge for teens to bounce back from the pandemic. I suspect there will be a long-term impact for young people who have missed out on more than a year of in-person education, as well as a difficult transition for those who have become accustomed to attending school from home.

Studies are still underway to assess the longer-term impact on behavioral health, but early surveys seem to indicate that many teens—and their parents—were deeply affected. For some kids, school can be a scary place. But for others, particularly those who are experiencing abuse at home or mental health issues, it’s a safety net.

“If we were inconvenienced, they were devastated—their worlds turned upside down,” said Steve Ramsland, a clinical psychologist and adviser to behavioral health companies.

Fortunately, this initial crop of companies like Daybreak are finding value in serving teens online and reaching them through their schools. Others, like Brightline Health and Ginger are attempting to serve this population in another new way, via their parents’ employer. One promising trend is that benefits teams are willing to pay for behavioral health services not just for employees, but also for their kids.

Ultimately I’m hoping to see a lot more companies emerge for adolescents in all of these areas—school-based, employer-driven, targeted to Medicaid, consumer-facing, and so much more. Frankly, we need it all.

As a new mother myself, I’d love to see us do the work to make mental health services available to younger populations. Just imagine the possibilities for our society if Gen Z is the first generation that gets access to mental health care early in their lives and talks openly about the value without fear of judgment. We would all have so much to learn from them.


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