Why Mil­len­ni­als Are Strug­gling With Men­tal Health At Work


Amer­i­cans do not take men­tal health se­ri­ously enough. Ac­cord­ing to the NIMH, as many as 45% of men­tal health cases go un­treated in this coun­try, at a to­tal po­ten­tial cost of $147 bil­lion per year.

These sta­tis­tics are dev­as­tat­ing and also not widely known—but they’re not ter­ri­bly con­tro­ver­sial. What is con­tro­ver­sial—or at least un­com­fort­able—is the idea that mil­len­ni­als suf­fer from more men­tal health is­sues than any pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion. This chal­lenges some of the com­mon as­ser­tions that mil­len­ni­als are en­ti­tled, lazy and lack a work ethic or re­spect for the dol­lar.

Could it be that they’re sim­ply more sus­cep­ti­ble to a world in tran­si­tion? De­pres­sion af­fects mil­len­ni­als in the work­place. Some of what we know about the men­tal health of mil­len­ni­als is thanks to the fact that we’ve now got five very dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions of Amer­i­cans min­gling to­gether in the la­bor force. This gives us a con­ve­nient—and, frankly, stark—look at how each of these groups of peo­ple have dealt with the over­lap of men­tal health and gain­ful em­ploy­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to Mashable, mil­len­ni­als re­port de­pres­sion in higher num­bers than any pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion, at 20%, or one in five. The run­ners-up are Baby Boomers and Gen­er­a­tion X, with 16% apiece.

But what does this ac­tu­ally mean, in con­crete terms? What’s the fall­out of a sit­u­a­tion where one in five mem­bers of an en­tire gen­er­a­tion re­port de­pres­sion symp­toms? To be­gin with, let’s dis­pel the idea that de­pres­sion is “merely” “feel­ing sad.” De­pres­sion is a rec­og­nized and re­cur­sive dis­ease, as mis­un­der­stood as it is de­bil­i­tat­ing. And while it can be treated, there is not yet a cure.

Most fre­quently, de­pres­sion re­sults in ab­sen­teeism—but

there’s an­other class of symp­tom that’s a lit­tle less ob­vi­ous and may play an un­for­tu­nate role in per­pet­u­at­ing some of the un­char­i­ta­ble gen­er­al­iza­tions that fol­low mil­len­ni­als around. Mashable says more than two-thirds of de­pressed mil­len­ni­als re­port that, while their symp­toms may not be se­vere enough to keep them home, their ca­pac­ity for qual­ity work is greatly di­min­ished even if they do man­age to sham­ble into the of­fice. De­pres­sion, not malaise Could this not be the “malaise” this gen­er­a­tion is so fre­quently ac­cused of? The pieces seem to fit.

Un­for­tu­nately, this de­scribes only half of the vi­cious cy­cle that is de­pres­sion. Based on a sur­vey of 300,000 Amer­i­cans, we know that 12.4% of un­em­ployed peo­ple say they are de­pressed.

Can you not see it? It’s a self-sus­tain­ing cy­cle. De­pres­sion leads to wors­en­ing job per­for­mance, which leads to un­em­ploy­ment, which leads to fur­ther de­pres­sion.

We could eas­ily get lost in the weeds here, but noth­ing short of a na­tion­wide con­scious­ness-rais­ing cam­paign will see men­tal health taken se­ri­ously—se­ri­ously to the point of be­ing in­cluded as a mat­ter of course in “or­di­nary” health­care cov­er­age, which, at this time, is trag­i­cally un­com­mon. It’s sim­ply not thought of as be­ing on the same level as the more phys­i­cal ail­ments. Why mil­len­ni­als? For a re­fresh­ing—but, alas, still flawed— take on mil­len­ni­als in the work­place, di­rect your­self to a re­cent in­ter­view with

Si­mon Sinek, au­thor of 2009’s Start With Why: How Great Lead­ers In­spire Every­one to Take Ac­tion.

In this 15-minute clip, Sinek as­serts that there are a few key rea­sons why mil­len­ni­als are fre­quently ac­cused of lazi­ness and en­ti­tle­ment—rea­sons that seem to dove­tail per­fectly with what we’ve al­ready dis­cussed about de­pres­sion and its ef­fect on our work. If we can ac­cept that con­cerns about men­tal health are be­com­ing more preva­lent with each new gen­er­a­tion, we owe it to our­selves to ap­proach an un­der­stand­ing of the en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors re­spon­si­ble for such a phe­nom­e­non.

One of the key fac­tors, ac­cord­ing to Sinek, is our cul­tural fas­ci­na­tion with so­cial me­dia and its ac­ces­si­bil­ity via smart­phones. This is well-trav­eled rhetor­i­cal ground, but he goes one step fur­ther to dis­cuss the chem­i­cals that re­act in the brain dur­ing our re­lent­less ex­po­sure to what you’ve al­most cer­tainly heard re­ferred to as “ev­ery­body

else’s high­light reel.” Ob­sess­ing over our friends’ and neigh­bors’ news­feeds has a nasty ten­dency to make us less se­cure about our own lives and ac­com­plish­ments.

And we all know about the vis­ceral re­ac­tion that ac­com­pa­nies that de­light­ful ping! as we re­ceive a no­ti­fi­ca­tion on our phones, but it turns out there’s a phys­i­cal one, as well—a re­lease of the plea­sure molecule dopamine, which, if in­dulged too fre­quently, very eas­ily re­sults in de­pen­dence—and de­pres­sion. Cre­at­ing the wrong en­vi­ron­ments Fi­nally, the ic­ing on the cake is what Sinek de­scribes as, “thrust­ing mil­len­ni­als into cor­po­rate en­vi­ron­ments that value money but not peo­ple.”

By im­mers­ing mil­len­ni­als into such an un­feel­ing cul­ture, we heap ex­pec­ta­tions on them that don’t re­ally res­onate with them on a per­sonal level, not to men­tion the pres­sures to “climb the lad­der” and take home an ever-larger pay­check. We all know there are more im­por­tant things than mak­ing more money, the most im­por­tant of which is job sat­is­fac­tion—mil­len­ni­als value the ba­sic dig­nity of a flex­i­ble work sched­ule far more highly than they value larger pay­checks.

The point is, all of this adds up to a per­fect storm for de­pres­sion. Much of Sinek’s gen­er­al­iza­tions are re­duc­tive and un­help­ful—I’ve never met a mil­len­nial for whom a lack of “bean bags in the of­fice” was a deal-breaker—but much of what he has to say is valu­able food for thought. It’s time to re­boot “work cul­ture” Once we es­tab­lish that de­pres­sion is a dis­ease with real-world con­se­quences, we need to grap­ple with the fac­tors that ex­ac­er­bate it. We need to, at the risk of sound­ing grandiose or self-im­por­tant, al­most fun­da­men­tally re­think the busi­ness world we’ve cre­ated, and what we want it to look like for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. What do we re­ally value? What does so­cial progress ac­tu­ally look like?

To hear some politi­cians tell it, we ought to con­tinue fetishiz­ing eco­nomic growth to the detri­ment of all else. To hear some par­ents tell it, young peo­ple sim­ply need “a kick in the pants” to jump-start their work ethic. Based on what we’ve learned to­day, a bet­ter first step is to more fully un­der­stand de­pres­sion and other forms of men­tal health prob­lems—and to ask our­selves hon­estly whether our life­styles are part of the prob­lem or in fact the prox­i­mate cause of so much of our un­hap­pi­ness.


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