The internet has gotten some things right — mental illness is not the exception.
According to The National Alliance on Mental Health, about 51.5 million U.S. adults struggled with mental health in 2019. That’s one in five adults.
And many of these struggles start early. About half of all lifetime mental illness begins at age 14, the study found, and 75% by age 24.
Generation Z and parts of the millennial generation grew up largely with the internet, exploring a world where there is a community for everyone and sharing their experiences. This cultural shift has led older generations such as Generation X, which spans 41 to 56-year-olds, and baby boomers, 57 to 75-year-olds, to reconsider the stigma around mental health and what living with a mental illness entails.
The internet has helped people find solace, knowing they are not alone, but it may leave people of all ages to wade through misinformation about mental illness, said Jodi Lorenzen, a clinical mental health counselor at Salt Lake Community College’s Center for Health and Counseling.
Lorenzen treats both older and younger patients regularly and said it can be easy to associate getting help with something wrong or shameful.
“People tend to think they are broken if they have mental health problems, more so than physical problems,” she said, explaining that physical ailments are not typically viewed as the person’s fault, whereas mental health issues sometimes, and incorrectly, are.
Lorenzen believes the internet has created a space for mental illness to be normalized. “It’s like ‘Oh, it’s not just me. I can get help for this.’”
Younger generations, who are often more influenced by the people they follow on social media, have been found to be quicker in seeking treatment than their predecessors, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Despite criticisms that overusing social media can lead to anxiety and depression, the study found that 37% of Gen Z and 35% of millennials were more likely to have received treatment or gone to therapy compared to 26% of Gen X, 22% of baby boomers and 15% of the Silent Generation, or those older than 76.
Ian Eggleston, a 19-year-old biology student at SLCC, believes younger people are more open to treatment.
“[They are more] willing to change and adapt to new information,” he said. “There’s a lot more learning about it [now], and a lot more knowledge.”
Anita Riddle, a 58-year-old music major, recalled students with more severe mental illnesses being educated separately in school.
“As adults,” she said, “they were often institutionalized.”
She feels the recent influx of mental health positivity is partly due to celebrity endorsement, mentioning gymnast Simone Biles, who temporarily withdrew from the Summer Olympics, citing poor mental health.
Because of this, Riddle said, “Others may feel less inhibited to express their mental issues and obtain proper treatment.”
Still, Lorenzen, the mental health counselor, urged people of all ages to be social-media literate.
“There are some really wonderful and credited people out there who know what they are talking about,” she said.
On the other side, however, there might be an unqualified influencer who “just wants to talk about depression.”
There’s a large range of information out there, and sometimes people don’t know how to filter that information, she explained.
In the digital age, it’s easy for anyone to create compelling media, which can make it difficult to know whether information is credible, according to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit offering resources for digital media literacy education. Thinking critically, determining whether a social post is meant to be persuasive and recognizing an influencer’s goal or point of view can help social media users better process good information from the bad.
Lorenzen also encourages individuals to not only think about what they read online but listen to their own internal works and build a relationship with their own emotions.
“[With] all of this information pouring in, not paying attention to what’s going on internally means we are missing out,” she said. “Our bodies and brains are working together for our own good – even if it looks strange.”
Alexie Zollinger wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. It is published as part of a collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.
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This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and [Your Media Organization's Name] to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through emerging journalism. Alexie Zollinger wrote this story as a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. For more stories from Amplify Utah, visit amplifyutah.org/use-our-work.