Gen Z Wants to Talk About Mental Health. You Should Listen.

Female and male students in front of brick buildings.
Caroline Hanson '27 and Hunter Sullivan '24 are encouraging peers and educators to normalize talking about and seeing support for mental health challenges. (Photos by Michael Ivins/Holy Cross}

Unlike earlier generations, today’s college students are willing to advocate for their mental health and force tough conversations in pursuit of a healthier society.

Nauseous and dizzy, Caroline Hanson ‘27 didn’t know what was happening. The intense anxiety she felt led to an overwhelming desire to immediately leave whatever situation she was in. She was in elementary school and needed help. “It’s confusing when you’re young. You don’t know why you feel this way and don’t know how to communicate how you feel. I needed someone to explain this to me in a way that my child brain could understand,” Hanson said.

With the support of her parents, Hanson connected with a therapist. Today, she said she feels like one of the fortunate ones and is driven to share her experience with others in an effort to normalize discussion around mental health.

“My anxiety is part of my why. It can be scary and it’s not something you can completely plan for. It’s me,” Hanson said.

"This generation is not weak."

Experts say Generation Z, people born between 1997 and 2012, is more prepared to openly discuss mental health and advocate for care than previous generations. For many, it’s an issue they’ve been talking about since primary school and they are now advocating for it in the workplace and on college campuses. Yet, the stigma remains.

“I know how it feels to internalize my feelings. It gets to a point that you feel like you’re going to explode and then you just break down. Therapy, talking to someone, can take time, but it’s worth it,” said Hunter Sullivan ’24.

Sullivan said he felt dragged down in high school and couldn’t pinpoint why. “It wasn’t just one catalyst, it was a million different things: school, sports, relationships, friends, family, stuff like that. My brother had just gone to college. My mom convinced me to see a therapist,” he said.

He hopes that by sharing his own experiences and asking his male friends and family how they’re doing will encourage them to talk with him or seek support from a counselor if their answer is not well.

“I really hope this trend of awareness continues,” Sullivan said.

"We’ve always known that there is angst and stress during adolescence. Now people are listening."

Alison Bryant Ludden, professor of psychology

Seventy-five percent of mental health conditions emerge by age 24, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness. The combination of social pressures and societal expectations gives rise to mental health issues, which are often exasperated by being under constant stress. Add that to personal loss, the chaotic and tumultuous world, the adversarial political climate and social justice unrest, it can be overwhelming and unbearable.

“It’s not great out there, and college is not a protective bubble,” said Paul Galvinhill, director of College and Psychological Services (CAPS). “We need to do our part to establish a continuum of care, make sure they know there is support available and take the time to develop that connection.”

According to a fall 2022 survey, 32% of Holy Cross students used CAPS services in 2021-2022, compared with 13% seeking comparable assistance nationwide. This figure is nearly double of that of five years ago. In response, the College has since implemented a variety of services and support for students.

Optimistic Aspirations

Despite statistics that highlight a greater need for mental health services, a recent Gallup poll also showed that 76% of Gen Z believes that they have a great future ahead of them. Galvinhill said this makes sense.

“Part of taking care of yourself is knowing your limits. This generation is not weak. It takes quite a bit of strength to be vulnerable as opposed to hiding and keeping it all inside,” he said.

In part, some of that strength comes from the support and encouragement this age group has started to receive from the generation before them, including parents and educators, according to Alison Bryant Ludden, professor of psychology and director of Holy Cross’ Montserrat program for first-year students.

“This generation is not broken in terms of mental health. We’ve always known that there is angst and stress during this time period of adolescence. Now people are listening and starting to realize that it’s the ecosystem around adolescence that is broken,” said Ludden, a developmental psychologist.

Advocacy and Emerging Voices

The emphasis on social-emotional wellbeing and learning and the demand by parents for greater support for their children, who are encouraged to advocate for their needs, is gradually forcing changes to the traditional system of mental health care.

“We know adolescence is a vulnerable time, but we need to reframe how we see it. We need to stop approaching it from a deficit perspective,” she said. “They can articulate their problems best and can recognize their own strengths. We need to listen to them and encourage them to self-advocate. We need to move to an asset model and encourage them to see their value and give them support and grace.”

Hanson has channeled her personal experiences into her advocacy. In October, she testified before the Massachusetts legislature in support of a bill that would require mental health education to be added to the primary and secondary school curriculum. She also serves as an appointed member of the Mary Christie Institute’s National Youth Council, where she works with peers from throughout the country to advocate for greater mental health resources and education on college campuses.

“This generation is willing to push (for change).”

Caroline Hanson ‘27

For Hanson, normalizing talking about mental health struggles is as vital as breathing. In 2018, her father died by suicide. She never thought she’d experience such a loss.

“You really don’t know how much it affects you and the people around you. You don’t know what others are experiencing. It’s [suicide and mental health challenges] more common than you think, and we need to make sure talking about it is normalized,” she said. “This generation is willing to push that.”

Sullivan, a member of the varsity swim team, is taking a direct approach to talking about the importance of mental health focusing on the next generation of swimmers who are part of a swim team he helps coach back home in Connecticut.

“I’ll talk to them about how they’re feeling after a bad practice. I’ll encourage them to get something to eat, some rest, and talk about what’s bothering them. I want them to be here, and I want them to be here and to be okay,” he said, adding that he’ll continue to do the same with friends and family.

Hanson acknowledged that keeping the conversation going and involving people outside of her age group is a lot of slow work.

“Making the small, incremental changes in schools, in daily conversations, will be worth it,” she said.