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Mental Wellness on College Campuses and Gen Z

May 7, 2019 Megan Boone Valkenburg Wilkes University

It has happened. The Gen Xers and Xennials of us have become the next generation to shake our heads incredulously and sigh “kids these days…”  We know we’re at a crossroads where Millennials and Gen Z converge.

Gen Z are among the most diverse group and the most well educated, with most of them enrolling in college (Parker & Fry, 2018). Not only are Gen Z diverse, but they are technologically savvy and think collaboratively. Unfortunately, this generation is a generation of arrested development.  This generation is marked by more insecurity, obsession with safety, and fear of their economic futures. The combination of fear, insecurity and safety concerns, this generation is growing up more sheltered and more mentally unwell (Laudert, 2018).  With so many of these young people entering higher education, we must be prepared for them.

Attachment to technology is the one thing we know about Gen Z. A recent road trip for AB provided the perfect example of Gen Z’s use of technology. All my students were carrying on conversations with one another in the car, singing along with Spotify, had Wayz open with the directions to where we were going, documenting everything on Insta and Snap Chat, studying for exams, and still texting home simultaneously. These students live with every tab open and are multitasking every activity. That means that not one thing gets their undivided attention. What advisers and student leaders can do is to first train students to work on focusing their attention. Cutting the tech stings by have clear and explicit rules about technology: when it can be used, how it can be used, and when it should be put away. If a site will not have technology, that should be made very clear from the beginning, during the interviewing process. This becomes important for families of Gen Zs as well. Families expect to be brought along on the experience as well.  Families are protective of their children because nowhere is safe. During our domestic AB trip we had several Face Times with students younger siblings and parents. It has become a part of the experience.

In addition, mental wellness is a barrier for the upcoming generation. The constant online presence, insecurity, worry about safety, and economic instability has left this generation ill. The stereotypes of mental illness are cultural, the drinking and drugging environment of a college campus are largely based on cultural stereotypes, and assistance seeking behaviors are also largely cultural.  Deep work needs to take place on the college campus to combat the derogatory stereotypes of mental illness and those who seek treatment.  Hard work needs to happen to change the culture of higher education that supports destructive behaviors that feed into decreasing mental wellness.

A study by Michaels et al. (2015) determined that changing the stigma of mental illness by raising awareness of mental illness was a priority for most educational leaders.  “This suggests leaders value efforts that eliminate stigma and deliver resilience-oriented messages to promote help-seeking behavior.  While community-wide efforts are important, leaders have priorities that more directly benefit people with mental health conditions” (p. 875).  However, the execution of this is often very passive like restricting the access and availability of drugs and alcohol, promoting healthy life styles, developing a caring community, and providing passive education (SAMHSA, 2019).

College campuses, must develop a comprehensive, culturally competent full campus initiative that combines not only mental wellness supported provided by the counseling center, but also those in Title IX positions, campus security, residence, and off-campus life, as well as disability services. Comprehensive programs must cull together the offices that can offer the best education concerning the intersection of mental wellness and the destructive nature of self-medication. Programs that have seen success engage peers as facilitators and mentors.  This type of peer-to-peer interaction begins to turn the culture of the institution.  Support and endorsement of these types of programs by administrators and faculty reinforce the culture shift.  It is vitally important that, as educators, we be the ones to initiate programs that break down these barriers. We must stop having the conversations and start taking action.

What is so important to know about the next generation is that it is up to us, as educators to change ourselves to work with them. We must teach ourselves a few new tricks. The laments myself and my colleagues really are a call to action, for ourselves. How can we use the natural talents of the next generation and teach them a few things in the process.  I think there’s an ap for that.


Dimock, M. (2019, January 17). Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-generation-z-begins/

Laudert, Elizabeth, "Generation Z: Utilizing Adaptive and Authentic Leadership to Promote Intergenerational Collaboration at Work" (2018). M.A. in Leadership Studies: Capstone Project Papers. 30. http://digital.sandiego.edu/solesmalscap/30

Michaels, P. J., Buchholz, B., Corrigan, P. W., Abelson, S., & Kanodia, N. (2015). Mental health priorities: Stigma elimination and community advocacy in college settings. Journal of College Student Development, 56(8), 872-875. Retrieved from https://wilkes.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1751972483?accountid=62703

Parker, K., & Fry, R. (2018, November 16). 'Post-Millennial' Generation On Track To Be Most Diverse, Best-Educated. Retrieved from https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/11/15/early-benchmarks-show-post-millennials-on-track-to-be-most-diverse-best-educated-generation-yet/

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2019). Behavioral Health Among College Students Information & Resource Kit. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 19-5052. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Se