By Marissa Lorusso and Sophia Barnes/Matters of the Mind
Millennials say that cost and time are the biggest factors keeping peers from seeking mental health care, according to a new survey conducted this spring by journalism students at American University.
The survey, titled “Matters of the Mind,” also points to a complicated relationship between millennials seeking help and talking about mental health; while seven in 10 of the respondents said they would feel comfortable visiting a counselor, the number dropped to five in 10 when asked if they would tell people they had done so.
Millennials often feel “that they shouldn’t have any time for themselves,” but should focus instead on constantly building a resume, according to Maggie Bertram, associate director of training and education at Active Minds, a nonprofit that works with college students to open up conversations around mental health. This may be one reason millennials do not feel they have time to address issues of mental health.
The survey was distributed online by American University journalism students from March 25 to April 10, 2015. While the methodology was not scientific because it relied on self-selected respondents, results from 890 respondents generally are consistent with other mental health research.
Of the respondents, about 86 percent identified as White, 6 percent Black/African-American, 7 percent Asian, 7 percent Hispanic, one percent American Indian/Alaskan Native, and one percent other. Two percent preferred not to state their racial/ethnic identity. In terms of gender identity, respondents were 73 percent female and 25 percent male; one percent identified as other, and one percent preferred not to say.
The results mostly reflect the opinions of white women, but the breakdown is not surprising; the 2014 National College Health Assessment study from the American College Health Association had similar demographics (75 percent White; 64 percent female).
According to the American Psychological Association, men are significantly less likely to seek help for, or talk about mental illness; this may make them less likely to engage in a survey about mental health. Likewise, according to the National Institute for Mental Health, there is a considerable stigma around mental health in the African-American community; this may have impacted people’s decisions to fill out the survey — or not — as well.
The Matters of the Mind survey team found that:
Millennials stress most over money and work, although this changes as they age, the survey shows.
Stress is a healthy condition in reasonable amounts, but more can lead to physical and mental health problems, says the American Psychological Association. Chronic stress has also been linked to changes in the brain that may be associated with other mental health concerns, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.
Sources of stress appear to be related to age and environment, according to the APA survey.
When asked about the three greatest sources of stress in their lives, over half of the Matters of the Mind study respondents study cited school, work, or money — with many saying all three.
“School” was the most common stressor among college-aged millennials (between ages 18 and 22); more than 75 percent of these millennials chose it.
One millennial responded, “My mental health has had a significantly negative impact on my academic performance during college.” The student added that professors and advisors should do more than refer students to help — they should be trained in how to interact with students with mental health challenges.
Another respondent wrote that classes, work and job searches affect all aspects of students’ lives. “It all becomes too much and we break down,” the student said.
The 2014 National College Health Assessment study shows similar data about the way stress impacts college students. Within the 12 months preceding the survey, more than 30 percent of millennials surveyed reported that stress affected their academic performance.
Money was chosen by nearly half of all college-aged millennials, too. And for millennials 23 and over, work and money took center stage. When speaking with college students about mental health and stress, “financial concerns come up a lot,” according to Bertram. And the 2015 report from the American Psychological Association on “Stress in America” indicated similar findings: money was listed as a source of stress for 75 percent of millennials surveyed by the APA.
Many college-aged millennials in the Matters of the Mind survey also selected self-esteem as a source of stress. This was more common in men than women (42 percent of surveyed millennial men 18-22, versus 34 percent of surveyed millennial women of the same age range).
Millennial respondents of the Matters of the Mind survey also believe that mental health care is difficult to access. Nearly half of respondents say that they do not believe that people their age know where to go for mental health care. Not only is money a major stressor, our respondents also cited it as a barrier to accessing help: More than half of millennials surveyed selected “cost of help” as a challenge facing millennials with a mental health diagnosis. About 53 percent of millennials surveyed also say that
not having enough time to address mental health concerns is an important challenge facing them.
Respondents also mentioned disappointment with the health care system. Nearly nine out of 10 respondents believe that the current health care system does not pay enough attention to mental health, and more than half of respondents “strongly agreed” that this is true.
One respondent pointed out that millennials who are younger than 26 may still be covered by their parents’ insurance, and thus may be nervous about seeking mental health care due to privacy issues.
Gaining access to mental health care might seem difficult for the millennials surveyed, but they do not report being particularly nervous about actually talking to a mental health professional. And nearly nine out of 10 respondents would be comfortable encouraging a friend to visit a counselor.
Millennials surveyed feel that mental health is misunderstood.
One respondent identified as having Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and said that other people often don’t understand OCD, “so even if they don’t judge me for it outright, later on they feel comfortable chalking up some unrelated thing that I do to my OCD.” This, the respondent said, makes them regret opening up in the first place.
Another respondent complained that professors don’t take mental-illness-related absences as seriously as those caused by physical illness.
“When I have emailed teachers saying I had to miss class because I was having a panic attack / anxiety, I have been laughed at, my comments have been invalidated,” one wrote.
The millennials surveyed also say that mental health is especially difficult to talk about, due in part to these misunderstandings. 84 percent of respondents believe that mental health is a more sensitive topic than other kinds of health, and almost 90 percent of respondents agree (or strongly agree) with the statement that millennials are “influenced by other people’s judgments and opinions when deciding to seek mental health care.”
One respondent noted that “the greatest hurdle to acceptance of mental health issues in [their] generation is the stigma.” This stigma can keep millennials from getting professional help, according to the survey. Nearly seven out of 10 respondents say that being unable to talk to family or friends might inhibit millennials from seeking mental health help.
The survey also shows that stigma may affect members of different ethnic and racial communities in various ways.
One respondent noted that, in the Asian-American community, members often have to contend with families who are not convinced of the helpfulness of “treatment …or mental health counselors.” They also mentioned having gone to see a counselor at university who was “an older white gentleman” and that the respondent “found the counseling sessions utterly useless because he couldn’t understand the intensity of experiences within an Asian immigrant family.”
Another respondent, who identified as Muslim, added this: “Religion also affects how we address mental health issues.”
Studies have also shown that stress may disproportionately affect black women, including a 2010 study by the National Institutes of Health titled “Do US Black Women Experience Stress-Related Accelerated Biological Aging?” While the study concentrated on older women, it raised questions about the effects of stress on Black millennial-aged women.
Despite the stigma, however, most respondents have seen a positive change in their generation’s ability to discuss and access mental health care. Nearly three in four respondents agree that millennials are “much more open to addressing mental health topics than older people,” and more than eight in 10 respondents agree that resources for mental health are better now than when their parents were young.
One respondent wrote in that they would like to think that mental health care is better for the millennial generation than in previous generations, but that there have been “budget cuts to mental health care in recent years … that jeopardize the quality and availability of mental health care.”
Collected responses hint that while millennials fear the stigma around mental illness, this stigma might not be as harsh as millennials believe.
For example, over 85 percent of respondents would be comfortable making friends with or working on a project with someone who had been diagnosed with a mental illness. More than six out of ten would not be uncomfortable living with, or dating, someone who had been diagnosed.
Not all agreed. One respondent wrote this: “Having grown up with a sister suffering from a severe mental illness, I opted not to live with someone who has mental illness,” due to the part mental illness played in this person’s history. But most respondents felt open to embracing those with a mental illness in their lives.
Millennials surveyed were not too worried about elected officials with mental illnesses, either; over half of respondents would be comfortable voting for someone who had been diagnosed. One respondent wrote that they “would feel 100 percent confident to vote for someone with mental illness if they had it under control and have for years.”
So while millennials generally perceive this social stigma, it may not affect the way they interact with people with mental illnesses.
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