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Gen Z and millennials want to have a chat about mental health. With politicians

Just a few weeks after entering the Maryland legislature last year, House Delegate Joe Vogel introduced his first bill.

Inspired by the young people he met while campaigning around his Montgomery County-based district, it focused on relieving up to $30,000 in student debt for mental health professionals working in Maryland public schools.

"They wanted to elect someone who was going to make student mental health a priority," Vogel remembered.

The policy received bipartisan support, and legislation including Vogel's language was signed into law last May.

Now, Vogel is running for Congress in Maryland's 6th District, an open seat currently held by Democratic Rep. David Trone, who is running for Senate. If elected, the 27-year-old would become just the second member of Generation Z in Congress.

His platform includes addressing what he calls a mental health crisis, in part facing young people today. He told NPR that his age adds an important perspective to his work on the subject.

"The toxicity that we see on social media platforms ... the fear of what the climate crisis is going to hold for our generation. I mean, all of these things, I think, have a unique impact on our generation," Vogel said.

"But on top of that, we're also a generation that is having to deal with this mental health crisis without adequate resources," he added.

Many young Americans are vocal about their struggles with mental health compared to older age groups. It comes at the same time as both Democratic and Republican leaders work to address the issue.

The latest Harvard Youth Poll found that nearly half of Americans under 30 reported feeling down, depressed or hopeless, and 56% said they felt nervous, anxious or on edge at least several times a week.

John Della Volpe, the director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, has spent more than two decades researching young people and did work for President Biden's presidential campaign in 2020.

He argued younger generations are distinctively affected by coming of age in a politically tumultuous time.

Compared to older generations, Gen Z and Millennials (43 years old and under) ranked "the state of the country/world" as the top factor associated with their happiness when given a number of topics — according to research from Della Volpe's polling firm, Social Sphere. When asked more generally about happiness levels, the survey also found Gen Z reported the lowest levels.

"We can see a link between young people's concerns about the divisions in our country, the time in which they have grown up, America's relationship with the world," Della Volpe explained.

"The concern about these issues in the public sphere are something that is unquestionably connected to their high levels of anxiety and depression. I think this is a relatively new phenomenon," he said.

At the same time, mental health has made its way into politics with elected officials and candidates linking high-profile political issues — including regulating social mediacompanies, addressing drug addiction and combating gun violence — to concerns over young people's well-being.

Hannah Wesolowski, the chief advocacy officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), sees recent policy moves relating to mental health as part of a major shift in how politicians discuss the issue.

"There's almost no policy issue that doesn't have mental health overlap," she said, "whether you're talking about immigration, education, health care, reproductive rights, veterans. Across the board, all of these issues have mental health repercussions and a mental health impact."

"So if a policymaker is not focusing on it, they're missing a big part of the story here and a big opportunity for solutions."

A broadly bipartisan topic

There's nothing different than breaking your arm and having a mental health problem. It takes real courage, genuinely, I really am proud of you.

In a recent campaign video featuring President Biden having lunch with a family in North Carolina, he discussed the topic of mental health with one of the teenage kids, who spoke about starting to see a therapist.

"There's nothing different than breaking your arm and having a mental health problem," he said, "it takes real courage, genuinely, I really am proud of you."

Throughout Biden's term, his administration has taken steps to address mental health, unveiling a strategy as part of his Unity Agenda, a series of policies the White House argues can be bipartisan efforts.

They've invested collectively over half a billion in funding towards helping increase the number of mental health professionals in schools. Plus, in 2022, the administration launched a 24/7 mental health emergency hotline, known as 988, which former President Donald Trump first established in an executive order before leaving office.

During Trump's term, he focused on reducing substance abuse in response to the opioid crisis and secured $9.5 billion for veterans' mental health support services. His campaign told NPR that the former president and GOP 2024 front-runner has already unveiled plans linked to mental health, including addressing drug addiction through "faith-based counseling, treatment, and recovery programs."

Though the broader topic of mental health has some potential bipartisan avenues for success, NAMI's Wesolowski argues that political division over high-profile social issues still hurts young Americans.

Specifically, she pointed to issues related to LGBTQ rights, particularly following the wave of restrictions on trans health care access last year, which she argued negatively affect the mental well-being of transgender and nonbinary young people

"That to me is one of the areas where the political rhetoric can be most damaging," she said. "We know rates of suicide and suicidal ideation in transgender, nonbinary youth are extraordinarily high. And when you hear politicians constantly saying there's something wrong with you, you're not 'normal,' that's really problematic."

Where the voters come in

They still kind of catastrophize about Biden but they're more cheerful about the world.

Another partisan split is on the role of mental health in response to instances of gun violence. Throughout his administration, Trump and Republican allies repeatedly called for mental healthreforms in the wake of mass shootings instead of changes to gun control policy. It's an association that mental health experts largely disagree with, arguing that while mental health reforms are important, access to guns is a crucial cause of the violence.

And the effects of gun violence may be a potential cause of some young people's mental strain, with over a third of young people under 30 expressing worry about a potential mass shooting when they're out, according to the latest Harvard Youth Poll.

Worry surrounding gun violence is an issue that conservative analyst and pollster Sarah Longwell has heard, particularly from young progressives.

Last fall, she conducted separate focus groups with young conservatives and progressives. She argued that some young progressives "catastrophize" certain issues relating to gun violence, climate change and financial insecurities.

"They don't say the words, 'mental health.' I don't want to be the one to categorize them as mental health," she said. "That's the main thing I see, is just how dark people think it is."

But among young conservatives, Longwell said, those same issues don't have the same effect.

"They still kind of catastrophize about Biden," she explained, "but they're more cheerful about the world."

That said, for young people who do feel affected by the current divisions in American politics and struggle with mental health issues, politicians addressing these topics go a long way, according to Della Volpe.

"This is a primary way for elected officials to create some sort of connection with their younger constituents, who question whether or not they could possibly understand or even [have] interest in empathizing with their plight," Della Volpe said.

I've had students really frankly say to me, 'How are we supposed to learn if we don't feel safe at school?' And what do I say to that?

It sticks out to Dakota Duncan, a 27-year-old middle school teacher based in Morganton, North Carolina.

As someone who sees a counselor for anxiety and depression, Duncan explained that talking about these issues has always been important to him. But since becoming a teacher, a job he began during the pandemic, it's taken on a new value.

"I've had students really frankly say to me, 'How are we supposed to learn if we don't feel safe at school?' And what do I say to that?" he asked.

He told NPR that the divisiveness of the country is not lost on his students or himself. And though he is a Democratic voter, Duncan can appreciate the work Trump did on mental health during his tenure.

"When I do hear President Biden or any elected official bring it up, it's a relief," he said. "And it makes me think more highly of them because I know that they're at least aware that this matters."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.