Gen Z – the generation which includes anyone born post-1997 – has a new approach to mental health.
Across the internet, this tech-savvy generation is bearing it all on social media; from recording emotional breakdowns to posting about suicidal ideation on TikTok. Much of their online humor reflects their struggles with mental health conditions, with memes often veering into the absurd, and at times, making jokes about dark feelings and thoughts.
Surveys conducted by the American Psychological Association show members of Gen Z are more likely to report experiencing mental health conditions, and about nine in 10 Gen Z adults (91 percent) said they have experienced at least one physical or emotional symptom because of stress, such as feeling depressed or sad (58 percent) or lacking interest, motivation or energy (55 percent).
“Current events are clearly stressful for everyone in the country, but young people are really feeling the impact of issues in the news, particularly those issues that may feel beyond their control,” Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD, chief executive officer of the American Psychological Association, said in a statement. “At the same time, the high percentage of Gen Z reporting fair or poor mental health could be an indicator that they are more aware of and accepting of mental health issues. Their openness to mental health topics represents an opportunity to start discussions about managing their stress, no matter the cause.”
For Olivia Eiler, who lives with depression, panic disorder, and anxiety, this raw authenticity on the internet is a release valve: a way to talk about heavy topics and feel not so alone in a world that seems to be out of control.
“One of my most distressing symptoms is isolation,” Eiler said. “When my depression acts up, I tend to think that no one understands what I’m going through or even cares. Dark humor memes give me a sense of recognition and belonging. I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that I’m not the only one struggling with mental health.”
Even though internet memes about mental health can often veer into absurdism and gallows humor, they can also be really funny, Eiler said.
“For me, it also helps to laugh,” she added. “Suicidal thoughts are serious and distressing by nature, but seeing them framed in a humorous way can ease some of the discomfort.”
When Maddison Brindle experienced depressive episodes, dark humor and memes were one way of sharing how she felt without alarming friends and family.
“It’s much easier to lighten the mood in a room full of people by joking around, so although we can all relate to each other in some sense about the state of our mental health, it’s easier to do when we act as if it’s not serious,” Brindle said. “We aren’t used to having those types of conversations, and many of our parents don’t even believe depression and anxiety exist, so conversations around mental health aren’t happening at home.”
Having seen so much tragedy and suffering in their lifetimes, both in-person and online, is also reflected in Gen Z’s brand of humor, she said. Since adults and politicians aren’t taking swift action to solve societal problems (like climate change, school shootings, socioeconomic inequality), nihilistic jokes seem like the only option left.
Overall, this generation seems primed to continue doing what they do best: calling it like they see it.
“Parents, teachers, and other trusted adults often tried to “shield” my peers and me from the harsh realities and distressing events going on in the real world,” Eiler said of her fellow Zoomers. “But 24-hour news cycles, globalization, and social media have made keeping up that facade nearly impossible. I think a lot of people in my generation are taking a big swing in the opposite direction from the generations before us. Instead of sugarcoating or trying to hide things, we’re blunt and brutally honest.”