5 tips to help overwhelmed millennials improve their mental health

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NPR called millennials “the generation of emotional intelligence.” Psychology Today called us “obsessed with self-improvement.”

We’re a generation that coined the term “self-care Sundays,” celebrates “mental health Mondays,” and prioritizes our relationships with ourselves pretty much every other day of the week as well.

But aside from posting about these things on Instagram, how are we actually caring for ourselves?

In therapy, of course. According to a recent study by the Barna Group, 21 percent of millennials have seen or are currently seeing a counselor or therapist, compared to 15 percent of Gen X-ers and only 8 percent of Baby Boomers.

Why are millennials going to therapy?

About one-third of millennials cite mental illness as the reason they pursued mental health services, according to the Barna Group research.

“I do see individuals between 20 to 30. A lot of times, they either have a failed relationship, they lost their job, they’re flunking in school — in general, it’s some type of dysfunction that leads them to see us,” said Dr. Javier Santos-Cubina of Novant Health Psychiatric Associates. “Usually there’s a trigger. Something happens that prompts them to reach out to a mental health professional.”

While substance abuse and anxiety-related conditions top the list of psychological disorders that are prevalent among millennials who seek mental health treatment, it’s hard to pinpoint any one particular thing that is causing the most stress among patients of this generation, said Dr. Michael Christo at Novant Health Psychiatric Associates.

“It’s not specifically just work, or school, or their relationships,” he said. “It’s all of these things that lead millennials to feel overwhelmed with life, and worried about what to do and what road to take.”

With that said, we asked Santos-Cubina and Christo to offer some practical advice for millennials interested in bettering their mental health.

(1) Consider your social media use

One of the differences between this generation and those of years past is the widespread use of social media.

“A lot of the challenges with social media are that everything is so immediate,” said Santos-Cubina. “There’s no buffer. It deprives the social aspect of face-to-face interaction.”

Social media also makes it way too easy to compare yourself to others, Christo said.

“One issue this age group struggles with is feeling inadequate, and social media can make that problem worse,” he said.

They both recommend limiting your use when possible.

(2) Make personal connections IRL

Christo also stressed the importance of forming a robust social network in real life, rather than just online. “Depression and anxiety can make you feel all alone, but then you withdraw even further, which makes things worse,” he said.

“Have some close friendships,” he continued. “You don’t need a lot of friends, but as long as you have some very close friends and family members you can go to for help and connection, that’s key.”

You can also join exercise groups, or, if it’s important to you, a faith community. “But make sure you stay connected,” Christo said.

(3) Take care of your physical health

We’ve all heard the importance of eating right and getting enough sleep at night. These important habits can also affect your mental health.

“If someone’s dealing with a lot of stress, they may struggle to get sleep or they might want to sleep all the time,” Santos-Cubina said. “The other thing is appetite — along the same lines, they’ll either lose their appetite or they’ll overeat. That can be a big sign that something is wrong.”

Be sure to also be mindful of other basic healthy habits, Santos-Cubina said. “Are you doing exercise? How’s your diet? How’s your social life? How’s your sexual life? How’s your spiritual life? Mental health is impacted by all of these things.”

Christo offered this practical advice: “Exercise is really important, and there are a lot of different ways to exercise, so find something that works for you and makes you happy — and stick with it. Find a diet that incorporates a lot of fruits and vegetables. Sleep is really important, too. I encourage a minimum of six to eight hours per night, having a set bedtime and trying to get up at the same time every day. ”

(4) Make work/school-life balance a priority

Millennials have a lot going on, so it’s important to take time for yourselves to reset. “In this age group, there are educational options being pursued, there are professional conquests, romantic relationships,” Christo said. “There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of excitement and opportunity, but a lot of stress, with this explosion of growth happening in this age group. In that context, you can see the onset of psychological disorders.”

“Set boundaries where you can disengage from work and relax,” Christo said. “Focus on self care. Do nice things for yourself and don’t feel bad about that.”

(5) Give yourself a mental health check

Christo encouraged millennials to look closely at themselves through a mental lens, as well. “Are you starting to isolate yourself more? Is your life revolving around drinking? Are you starting to feel hopeless? Do you feel really bad about yourself? Would you rather stay home than go out and do things? Do you not call your mom anymore? Those can be signs that you need to go and get some help,” he said. “There could be a problem.”

People in this age group often normalize mental illness and think it’s something that they can manage on their own, which prolongs them from getting the help they need, Christo explained. “When you do seek treatment early, it reduces the persistence of these illnesses and helps you get back to your life and the goals you’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “I would encourage millennials — if you feel like you’re struggling, don’t be afraid to seek help. There are a lot of good treatments out there, whether psychiatric or psychological. It’s going to help you in the long run.”

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