Savanna Harper looks over her shoulder as she crosses her college campus, quickening her pace between buildings. “Anxiety” is how she labels the feeling she can’t quite shake off, the worry that her campus might be the next scene of a mass shooting. She’s never been a witness or a victim, but her friend was at the shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas, on October 1, 2017, an event that left 58 people dead and more than 850 injured. “That was a little too close to home,” Savanna says.
Savanna is not the only young person concerned about her safety — or her future. Her anxiety seems particularly salient after the recent deaths of a dozen young people at a college bar in Thousand Oaks, California, and only a few weeks after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
Christine MacInnis, who has been a school counselor for 23 years and a private therapist for 10, works extensively with high school and college students. In the past decade, she has seen an uptick in anxiety and depression among her younger clients.
“A lot of what is causing the growing rates of these mental health problems is the speed and ease by which we come in contact with negative news,” MacInnis says. “I have seen a huge spike in panic attacks, generalized anxiety, and depression due to the overwhelming amount of difficult topics constantly being discussed.”
Politics Have a Documented Psychological Impact
Recent research has documented the negative impact that politics and current events have on young people’s mental well-being. A survey conducted among Arizona State University students following the 2016 presidential elections found that 25 percent of students experienced clinically significant event-related distress. In other words, a fourth of all survey respondents had symptoms that would qualify them for an official psychological diagnosis.
According to the authors, repeated exposure to words and images that threaten one’s identity or perpetuate negative stereotypes can also negatively affect psychological well-being. Election-related rhetoric targeted at specific groups can be especially distressing. Women, racial minorities, low-income individuals, and LGBTQ+ individuals in particular reported significantly more anxiety than other respondents.
Negative rhetoric and events that touch on young people’s identities are particularly triggering. Jacob Rostovsky, an associate marriage and family therapist who works with the queer community, says that many young people no longer feel safe. “The message that is being received is that it’s not safe to be who you are,” he says. “It feels like there is nowhere safe to turn.”
Another new study from the American Psychological Association found that more than half of Gen Z (ages 15 to 21) identify the current political climate as a source of stress. Nearly three-quarters of Gen Z youth report the possibility of mass and school shootings as a significant stressor, much more so than older generations. Other anxiety-inducing issues dominating the news cycle include rising suicide rates, climate change, the treatment of immigrants, and widespread reports of sexual harassment and assault.
What’s Happening to Young People Is Very Real
Are young people more sensitive to these issues than older generations? Naama Friedman, an 18-year-old freshman at Reed College, says she can’t escape the negative news cycle. “We don’t really remember a time before the internet… We haven’t had to go looking for information, and since it’s just right there… it’s so hard to avoid, you know?” she says.
MacInnis describes this as secondary trauma — the emotional duress that results from hearing about someone else’s traumatic experiences. A therapist, for example, may experience secondary trauma after listening to patients share upsetting events. “My clients are getting traumatized by just the images they are seeing,” MacInnis says. “This is a very real phenomenon that’s happening to our youth.”
Outside observers — and young people themselves — may try to underplay the impact. As Savanna expresses it, “It feels like you’re kind of taking away from the people who actually did go through it.”
Rostovsky reiterates that individuals can also experience psychological distress when watching events on television or reading about them. “Just sitting in a room with somebody and listening to them talk about something that’s happened can affect us just as deeply as if we experienced it ourselves,” he explains. “There’s a psychological reason as to why someone might be feeling signs and symptoms of something they never experienced.”
MacInnis adds that young people’s brains are still developing into their early twenties, which can partly explain why they might feel so overwhelmed.
The negative news cycle doesn’t affect everyone the same way. While some people might be overwhelmed by the world’s problems, others might be completely desensitized — a problem in its own right. MacInnis says the most sensitive young people are those who are most likely to be affected by the negative news cycle.
“There are certain people who are inherently more sensitive to their surroundings and to other people — they are empaths,” MacInnis says. “They’re the ones that take it all in and manifest it in physical or emotional symptomology.”
Rostovsky adds that anxiety is a very human response to negative occurrences. “It means you have a big heart and you care about the world,” he says.
Young People Cope by Taking Action
So how do young people cope, and how can adults support them? Rostovsky says that for some individuals, anxiety may manifest as anger, which they can then channel into activism. The Parkland High School survivors’ advocacy for gun control is a prime example of this. The APA study had one positive finding: Three in five Gen Zers took some sort of action in the past year, such as signing a petition or sharing their political or social views with friends and family.
MacInnis suggests that adults remind young people that the only thing they can control are their own actions. “If they are worried about gun violence in schools, they can… stand up for others who need support,” she says.
She also advises helping young people put things into perspective: “What may seem like the end of the world today may be resolved by tomorrow. Remind them that there are so many positive events in our world every day. We all need to believe that more than ever.”