Back in March, Joshua Rivera had just finished planning his post-graduation life.
By summer, after earning his associate’s degree in photography from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, he’d land in Los Angeles. Rivera, 20, found an apartment and roommate. He’d lined up an internship and freelance gigs. He envisioned breaking into fashion and lifestyle photography.
Then the coronavirus pandemic struck and his carefully laid plans swiftly fell apart. Stimulating classes went virtual and Rivera felt less inspired. He lost his job as a hair salon receptionist. Sweatpants replaced the stylish outfits he once took pride in wearing. He began going to sleep at 3 a.m. and waking up late in the afternoon. Normally cheerful and motivated, Rivera felt increasingly anxious and depressed.
Rivera’s experience is familiar to anyone who’s felt unmoored by the pandemic, but there’s been particular concern over how teens and young adults like him will cope with unprecedented social, economic, and political upheaval just as they’re learning to navigate the world independently from their parents and caregivers.
Rivera’s demographic cohort — those born after 1996 and known as Generation Z — is already at-risk of increased mental health issues for reasons that aren’t entirely understood. The suicide rate amongst 10 to 24-year-olds has risen at a frightening pace over the last decade, and preliminary data suggest there’s reason to fear for their emotional and psychological well-being during the pandemic. A survey conducted in July by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a quarter of respondents between 18 and 24 seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days. Amongst respondents of all ages, 11 percent reported suicidal thinking.
Such findings are alarming and demand increased funding and resources to address youth mental health issues, yet they obscure another important trend: Members of Generation Z are also demonstrating impressive resilience in response to unthinkable life changes. While often ridiculed for being overly sensitive and entitled, teens and young adults are turning to self-care, creative expression, service to others, inventive problem-solving, and other forms of personal growth to chart a path through what may ultimately be one of the most difficult times in their lives.
“I need to do better for myself. I’m not just going to sit here and do nothing.”
Rivera says the first few months of the pandemic felt as if a curtain had closed on his life, much like it sweeps across a theater stage. Then in mid-June, he realized the pandemic wouldn’t change, so he had to instead.
“COVID isn’t going away anytime soon,” he thought. “I need to do better for myself. I’m not just going to sit here and do nothing.”
The revelation prompted Rivera to offer friends free socially distanced photo shoots so he could continue to make art. That turned into a few paying freelance shoots, which “sparked” his drive to do more. He decided to enroll in FIT’s one-year program for fashion business management. Rivera says the virtual courses aren’t easy, especially without access to speciality equipment that the school would loan to students during a typical school year, but the program has revived his faith in pursuing a career in his field.
“I’m thankful I was able to have a fallback…,” he says. “I now feel like I have a purpose.”
The importance of taking control
Dr. Nicole Brown knows Rivera’s story well since he’s a patient at Strong Children Wellness, a medical practice in New York City that predominantly serves Black and brown youth, many of whom are on Medicaid. Dr. Brown, a pediatrician and chief health officer of the practice, has seen a similar trajectory amongst some of her young patients. She was particularly worried about a high school senior with a history of anxiety, whose symptoms spiked at the beginning of the pandemic. Shortly after George Floyd‘s death, however, the young woman said she felt transformed by attending a local protest against police violence.
“You could see the change,” says Dr. Brown. “She lit up when speaking about it.”
The experience didn’t fundamentally change her diagnosis, but Dr. Brown says it gave the teen an opportunity to fight for an important cause while connecting her to a larger community of activists and peers. She wasn’t the only patient of Dr. Brown’s who began the pandemic with high-risk mental health conditions and found a new outlet in learning about and advocating for racial justice.
“When young adults have this sense of agency, when they’re the ones determining their destiny and future, it’s a really important part of how they adapt to an adverse circumstance,” she says.
In general, Dr. Brown says youth who are experiencing adversity and emotional or psychological distress are best positioned to thrive when supported by caring, nonjudgmental adults who are open to talking about mental health issues and seeking treatment, if necessary. Youth without such support might continue to struggle, no matter how hard they try to find contentment. Regardless of the circumstances, teens and young adults shouldn’t feel they’ve failed if resilience doesn’t come easily or with consistency, says Dr. Brown.
Prioritizing self-care and problem-solving skills
A year before the pandemic, Abby Sanchez was a high school junior in Berkeley, California, feeling overwhelmed by rigorous schoolwork. She adopted an “A or nothing” approach to school and her singular focus on studying meant she ate poorly, which ultimately contributed to developing appendicitis. The strain on her physical and mental health led her to see a therapist, where she learned how to manage anxiety with basic organizational skills, journaling, and taking time to recharge.
“I never knew I needed to take care of myself just as a concept,” says Sanchez.
“I don’t think I was the same person I was at the beginning of quarantine.”
That lesson became invaluable this spring. Stuck at home, Sanchez, 18, spent time making friendship bracelets, painting, watching Netflix, and practicing gratitude, even as that last habit became harder to repeat in the wake of skyrocketing fatalities related to COVID-19, Floyd’s death, and the civil unrest that followed. Sanchez also simply sat with her thoughts and feelings, something that felt impossible to do pre-coronavirus because of her demanding social and academic commitments. Instead of plunging her deep into anxious rumination, that solitary time helped Sanchez better know herself.
She also tried to make the best of many disappointments. When graduation came, she posed for photos next to her computer as the virtual ceremony unfolded. To mark that milestone, Sanchez and a friend drove in separate cars to a Bay Area beach and watched the sun rise. They tried to find the silver lining in a senior year cut short.
“I don’t think I was the same person I was at the beginning of quarantine,” she says.
Self-care was indeed one of the major themes that emerged from a new mental health guide produced by DoSomething.org, a community for young people interested in social change, and the BlueSky Initiative, a program to increase mental health access in California schools. The joint project set out to survey teens about their mental health experiences along with tips for coping. More than 50,000 teens participated, and the guide reflects nearly 75,000 tips submitted through the survey.
In addition to self-care, the report found remote learning and helping loved ones were two other major themes for youth. Bryce Williams, vice president of MindBody Medicine at Blue Shield of California, the nonprofit insurance company that runs the BlueSky Initiative, says being of service to others showed up time and again as a coping skill in the survey results. Teens wanted to support family and friends while contributing to their communities by delivering food to older neighbors, sewing masks, volunteering at food banks, or starting their own service projects to help people in need.
“It wasn’t just about, ‘What am I doing to help me?” says Williams.
Survey participants seemed to step in where they felt adults had failed in handling a public health emergency, economic collapse, and civil unrest. This led to feelings of anxiousness but also helped teens develop a greater sense of agency over unpredictable circumstances. Williams says the respondents simultaneously held complex feelings like sadness, anger, confusion, and the desire to make a difference. Williams suggests they acted out of frustration, despair, and determination as if to say to the adults in charge, “Come on, guys, get your act together…we’re not just going to complain…we’ll start to do something about it in the arenas we can control.”
For Rivera, who did not participate in the survey, aiding someone else meant supporting his grandparents, with whom he lives, when they both contracted COVID-19. When his grandmother was hospitalized, he brought her toiletries and clothes. At home, he did his grandfather’s chores, taking out the trash and walking the dog. His grandparents are well now, but tending to their needs made Rivera feel accomplished: “I can take care of myself as well as others.”
Finding creative outlets
Like Rivera, who knew photography was critical to his resilience, countless other teens have turned to creative expression as a way to cope with the pandemic and other traumatic events. In the responses collected by DoSomething.Org and the BlueSky Initiative, teens reported engaging in a wide range of artistic expression, including dance, music, and writing.
Mina Aslan, youth program coordinator at Headstream, an initiative that supports youth well-being through technology, says that teens and young adults are eager to not just consume creative content but to make their own, particularly on Instagram and TikTok. In Headstream’s program for youth innovators, the 20 participants have spent the past few months building digital spaces to support teen wellness. That includes peer-to-peer mental health platforms, social media advocacy campaigns, documentaries about social issues, and artistic zines.
Aslan says teens in the Headstream program have used creativity to combat feelings of helplessness. “Their resiliency comes from a desire to transform the societies in which they live in,” she wrote in an email.
“A lot of young people are meeting deep challenges for the first time and they’re finding themselves up for it.”
Janis Whitlock, director of the Cornell University Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery and a senior advisor to the JED Foundation, a youth emotional health and suicide prevention organization, says the impulse to express themselves makes sense because teens and young adults are “really driven” to create at this stage in their lives.
To find or sustain such momentum, Whitlock recommends that young people develop and stick to a plan that helps them cope with quickly changing circumstances. As the pandemic becomes more challenging during the fall and winter months, along with the uncertainty surrounding the presidential election and the ongoing fight for racial justice, Whitlock urges young people — and their families — to prepare for life to get even harder. That means having a “repertoire” of skills and practices to rely on and staying connected to loved ones and engaged in fulfilling activities.
“People don’t know they’re resilient until they meet a challenge that requires them to be resilient,” says Whitlock. “A lot of young people are meeting deep challenges for the first time and they’re finding themselves up for it.”
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. ET, or email email@example.com. Here is a list of international resources.