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One in four Gen Z adults went to therapy as teens

Members of Gen Z are more likely than their predecessors to have experienced frequent loneliness. Credit: Getty

November 10, 2023 - 8:00pm

Generation Z is going to therapy far more than any other age cohort, a new study has found.

Among American Gen Z adults, over a quarter (27%) reported having gone to therapy in their teenage years, including 31% of Gen Z women, a survey from the American Enterprise Institute found. Only 4% of boomers and 10% of Generation X attended therapy as teens, along with 20% of millennials. 

The survey delved into the formative experiences of Gen Z, who were less likely than previous generations of teens to have part-time jobs, attend religious services, have a boyfriend or girlfriend, or drink or smoke, according to the survey. They were, however, much more likely to have experienced frequent loneliness. 

These findings support claims of a youth mental health crisis spreading across the West, but it’s less apparent whether therapy is actually helping. Therapy methods long touted as universal interventions have been found to not only not help teens, but to actually exacerbate their problems and worsen their relationships with their parents, according to a recent report from the Atlantic analysing several studies on the subject. 

In one study from Australia, researchers taught mental health improvement techniques that are commonly used in therapy to teenagers, expecting to see an improvement in psychological and social outcomes. Instead, the treatment group’s anxiety, depression and quality of life all declined compared to the control group, and their relationships to their parents worsened. 

The uninspiring results of such studies seems to be having no impact on the popularity of mental health services. Behavioural therapy is a growth industry, and it’s expected to double over the coming decade as mental health disorders become more common and awareness of corresponding treatments continues to grow. Patients are now seeking out therapy through telehealth services, and a number of online companies have popped up to cater this market. One example is Hers and Hims, which offer mental health services including drug prescriptions and advertise their services relentlessly on digital streaming platforms.

“It’s not surprising that so many Gen Z’ers have received therapy, considering that 20% of US teens in 2021 suffered from major depression in the last year, twice as many as in 2011,” Jean Twenge, author of Generations, told UnHerd. “In addition, suicide rates have doubled, and more than twice as many are hospitalised for self-harm. These trends are similar across the Anglosphere. If anything, the statistics suggest more should get therapy.”

“Therapy is needed for some of our teens,” Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, told UnHerd. “But the research also tells us that many young adults would be protected from anxiety and depression by spending more time outdoors, exercising, socialising, and doing activities with their families rather than spending time on a screen.”

School shutdowns during Covid-19 were devastating for youth mental health. Youth whose schools closed during the pandemic reported more depression and anxiety, internalised problems more, and even saw physiological changes to their brains in areas associated with self-control, memory and responses to fear and stress, an NIH study found. The longer the shutdown, the more pronounced the impact, according to the study.  

But the decline in teenage mental health started before 2020. Social media has long been blamed for youth anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other ills. Teenagers have attributed blame to Instagram for anxiety and depression, and in 2019 its parent company, then known as Facebook, acknowledged in an internal study that the app makes body image worse for one third of teenage girls. 

“The rise of social media has fuelled increases in anxiety and depression, especially among young women,” Wilcox added. “This is particularly a problem among young women who identify as ideologically progressive and who come from non-intact families. In other words, the medium and the message today has hit young women especially hard, especially young women living outside of an intact family.”


is UnHerd’s US correspondent.

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Mrs R
Mrs R
8 months ago

Social media plays a huge role but broken homes, the loss of family structure and community, the atomisation of society, and too many anxiety raising issues taught to school age children are also driving this epidemic.
We have to take responsibility.
As a divorced mother I feel a lot of shame for the failure of my marriage and the impact it had on my children. They’re doing well but I do not kid myself that they didn’t suffer terribly, that it didn’t affect them negatively.
I look back from my present vantage point and I regret the fact that I didn’t fight harder for my marriage but I gave up and threw in the towel. That I had imbibed the bs that children are ‘resilient’ and will ‘adapt’ so long as there is no acrimony.
All too easy to get a divorce and now its easier than ever. While I think it definitely should be a right for anyone, I do so wish there was far more information available out there as to the damage it really does to children, and that it was culturally acceptable to make a strong case for keeping the marriage and the family intact.

Last edited 8 months ago by Mrs R
Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
8 months ago
Reply to  Mrs R

Thank you for a very reflective and honest post.

Brendan Kenny
Brendan Kenny
8 months ago
Reply to  Mrs R

Thank you.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
8 months ago
Reply to  Mrs R

Very courageous post. Thank you.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
8 months ago
Reply to  Mrs R

Very honest and ballsy post.

You know, you’re not the only one to have been taken in by the ‘it’s my life’ cum ‘follow your dream’ mantra. We were all spoon-fed it and it seemed so self-evident as to be hardly worth questioning at the time.

But the data in this case doesn’t lie and we’ve all known for aeons now that the worst thing for kids is divorce. But how do you square that with our desire to please ourselves and have it all ? We were sold a big lie and the chickens are now coming home to roost.

Arthur G
Arthur G
8 months ago
Reply to  Mrs R

Very brave post. This is a societal failure, not just an individual one. As a civilization we no longer value sacrifice for your family.

Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
8 months ago
Reply to  Mrs R

Your expression of regret and self-awareness — which imply great care for your children — suggests you were, and are, a better parent than you think. Hardship is an unavoidable part of human experience, and some hardship occurs in childhood, caused by well-intentioned but imperfect parents. Working through that residue — and/or just making peace with it — is part of what makes resilient adults.

Mrs R
Mrs R
8 months ago

I’ve received very gracious responses to this post. Thank you so much.

Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
8 months ago
Reply to  Mrs R

I agree with you that broken homes and the lack of community play a huge role, but when it comes to marriage, to any relationship, it always takes two to make it work. If you were the only one who fought for your marriage, and your husband had already given up, you should not feel any shame. My own parents divorced in the mid-1990s when my sister and I were older teenagers, and we knew that our father had wanted out of the marriage. There wasn’t anything our mum could have done to keep the relationship going. It had only existed on paper for a number of years prior. We both turned out alright if I may say so myself. We are married, and have children of our own.

Mrs R
Mrs R
8 months ago
Reply to  Katja Sipple

Yes, thank you, there are times when there simply is no other answer and that’s why I said it must be a right. I had reasons aplenty believe me but my children were at a young and tender age, they simply could not possibly have understood why their lives so suddenly and irrevocably changed even though we tried to explain. That must have been traumatic for them. At the time I didn’t fully comprehend that, I suppose I wanted/needed to believe the usual platitudes. I feel shame regarding my own lack of conscious awareness around the issue, of putting my own happiness before theirs. No one made that point to me and I certainly didn’t see it like that at the time. Had I done so I honestly believe it might well have made me re-consider. Who knows.
I am simply advocating for more caution and much, much more sober thought and understanding as to both the short and long term impacts before taking such a major step as divorce. There needs to be better support and far more open discussion about divorce and its impacts.

Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
8 months ago
Reply to  Mrs R

Thank you for being honest.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

This can’t be true. I’ve seen them all on instagram and they are all really happy and living their best lives!

Arthur G
Arthur G
8 months ago

Psychiatry and Psychology are a huge fraud perpetrated on an unsuspecting public. They prescribe mass quantities of psychotropic drugs that have no proven benefit, and practice “therapy” based on long discredited theories. 90% of these kids would be better off with a kick in the ass, and an admonition to count their blessings vis a vis people with real problems.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

Clearly we have got something very, very wrong with the way we raise our children. We’d better find out what it is and do something about it.

How can it be that children can grow up during war time, in poverty, even living in slums – and apparently be less messed up?

Jon Barrow
Jon Barrow
8 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Hi David, there’s no, or maybe an inverse, relationship between material wealth and being ‘messed up’. Far more important are stuff like family, community, identity, goals, employment. My own experience, coming from a pretty malfunctioning family, living rough in my teens etc. – work gave me stability and direction.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago
Reply to  Jon Barrow

It would be good to have stats on who is suffering most by social class, urban/rural, ethnicity etc as well as by gender.

Nancy G
Nancy G
8 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

By ‘gender’, perhaps you mean ‘sex’, i.e. males and females?

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago
Reply to  Nancy G

At this point, who knows! But yes, I’m using it as synonym for sex – one of its uses in common parlance.

j watson
j watson
8 months ago

Feels like a straight lift from Jonathan Haidht.
The correlation between mental health difficulties increasing in the young and smart technology/social media v strong and the evidence just growing. Haidht charts the trend commencing c2010-12.
Heard him give a talk a couple wks back (Unherd funders actually put it on) – no smart technology until 14 and no social media until 16 his advice; to be aware Instagram and TikTok particularly damaging, esp to young girls. He also links this with over protective parenting. Kids got to get out of their bedroom etc.
He refers to something that may be going on in the neuronal wiring development in young brains. The wiring is not developing as it had done for millennia because of these technologies.
Interestingly he thinks Govt will need to help set rules and parental decisions/choice alone may be insufficient here – point being if your kid is the only one without a smart phone it’s v difficult to say ‘no’ to them, but if you can get to a tipping point of c50%…And that 50% is not going to happen now without Policy maker intervention. He also praised UK for banning phones in schools, but said it was not enough. (CCP has introduced smart tech maximum time for kids – not the best example perhaps but clearly they’ve seen a problem).
Lockdowns won’t have helped, but as Haidht shows this started well before.
In UK nothing in Kings Speech on this. Perhaps too early for Policy Makers to fully grasp we may well have to intervene here – we have a legal age for alcohol, smoking etc, so perhaps it’s just a matter of time?

Last edited 8 months ago by j watson
Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
8 months ago
Reply to  j watson
j watson
j watson
8 months ago
Reply to  Katja Sipple
Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
8 months ago

Parents who don’t parent bear substantial responsibility here. It’s easier to let technology babysit than get kids outside and active. It’s easier to seek an exculpatory diagnosis and medication than change screen, diet, exercise and other lifestyle factors. Easier to see one’s child as special and in need of delicate handling than to enforce discipline and permit struggle through ordinary hardships that instill what we used to call character. Easier to continue financially supporting a long-coddled adult child than require independence. Even easier, these days, to validate a child’s belief that he or she is the opposite sex than to hold the line against socially mediated delusion.
It’s easier and less disruptive to parents’ own lives to make such choices — to avoid emotional friction and hard, sustained effort — than to fulfill their responsibility to genuinely love and steward children to capable adulthood.
Good parenting is among the most difficult of human endeavors — perhaps the most difficult, especially in today’s society. Despite all the handwringing over lowered birth rate in Western nations, it’s more responsible to forgo children if one is not committed to making the necessary sacrifices and enduring the necessary difficulties.

Last edited 8 months ago by Colorado UnHerd
Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
8 months ago

No surprise, considering that the schools have been telling them for their entire lives that they’re unhappy and need their (the schools’) intervention, usually to save them from their parents or the culture at large.

Micheal MacGabhann
Micheal MacGabhann
8 months ago

The mental health manufacturing industry is the new woke.

Last edited 8 months ago by Micheal MacGabhann
Katja Sipple
Katja Sipple
8 months ago

“Therapy methods long touted as universal interventions have been found to not only not help teens, but to actually exacerbate their problems and worsen their relationships with their parents, according to a recent report from the Atlantic analysing several studies on the subject.”
Oh, indeed? This has been my stance for many years, and I vividly remember being torn to shreds over it. I was called every name in the book by so-called experts and the parents of Gen Z. A part of me wants to send them the link to rub it in; another part thinks that it will be an utter waste of time; and a third part wonders if reading an analysis by an independent source may actually do some good for the parents and their offspring.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
8 months ago

Doesn’t seem to be doing them much good.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
8 months ago

First iphone introduced in 2007. By 2010 large (and growing) numbers of tweens/teens had their own phones. Same year the mental health problem stats started to climb. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Kieran P
Kieran P
8 months ago

Snowflakes!!

Karl Juhnke
Karl Juhnke
8 months ago

Feminism.

Ian L
Ian L
8 months ago

I really dislike the arbitrary terms used to identify specific age bands of the population. GenZ, Boomer, Millennials, etc mean absolutely nothing to me.

I refuse to memorise them or to look them up. I therefore have no idea what this article is about because I skipped straight here to communicate my displeasure.

What is wrong with using years or dates? I’m a child of the seventies.