Opinions, Column

Mental Health and Coping in the Digital Age

The mental health conversation is the loudest it’s ever been and everyone has something to say. The internet has revolutionized how openly we talk about mental health, but this revolution was not without its consequences.

Mental health issues among Generation Z have skyrocketed in recent years, and not by reason of new stressors.

Our generation has been surrounded by stressors from the get go. We’ve lived through a housing crisis, rising inflation, intense political polarization, a shrinking job market, and a global pandemic. Things are, and have been, a little stressful.

But none of this is necessarily new. Our parents and grandparents may have had an easier go of it, but bad things tend to come in waves. In the early 1900s, people were dealing with their own pandemic, a historic recession, and a World War. 

So why do things seem particularly bad now? The conversation surrounding mental health is louder and more accepting than it’s ever been, so why is our generation struggling at higher rates? 

In medicine, most successful cures have one or two negative side effects. The openness with which we talk about mental health today is certainly beneficial, but it has also completely warped the ability of many people to cope.

The internet is where our generation goes for support and comfort, making it a home base for the mental health conversation. Digital dialogue holds a powerful ability to humanize mental health issues for a broad audience and allow people to access professional care at unprecedented levels.

But while many turn to the internet for mental health support, the internet is also a source of mental health issues. The internet has allowed people to confuse healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Foremost, we were never supposed to be exposed to as much information as the internet exposes us to. From unrealistic highlight reels of our peers’ lives to the graphic and disturbing footage that exists in all corners of the internet, the content we consume has boundless consequences for our mental health.

Further, the internet’s plethora of distractions can act as avenues, putting off stress without forcing internal reflection. People no longer have to learn how to deal with their stressors. You can simply check one of your loved one’s locations to quickly ease an irrational anxiety rather than working to develop stronger, permanent coping skills.

These distraction tactics work very well in the short term, but they ultimately prolong the problem. If your ability to cope is entirely reliant on your ability to distract yourself online, what will you do when your Wi-Fi disconnects?

This conversation surrounding mental health also encourages isolation. The internet has normalized oversharing and trauma dumping while also telling people to constantly focus on protecting their personal well-being and peace. On one hand, people become incapable of boundaries, and on the other, people completely deny themselves of community in the search for mental peace.

But it’s strong social connections that actually combat stress. How can that be achieved online or within isolation? The mental health conversation seems to have shoehorned people into these two counterproductive options.

The internet’s prevalence in everyday life has made it increasingly difficult for people to turn to past coping mechanisms developed from close friendships and connection to the community. These have been replaced by cheap and easy ways to relieve anxiety without addressing it. 

The mental health conversation has become incredibly open. There are significantly fewer stigmas on things like medication and people seem more comfortable with their own struggles. Still, the majority of this progress has relied on the internet, which comes with more than a couple of negative side effects.

People need to be willing to look at their own coping mechanisms and behaviors to understand how to truly improve their mental health.

April 14, 2024