Opinion: What Gen Z teens like me are getting wrong about mental health
I grew up with a mom who’s a therapist, which meant that feelings moved through the air in our home like oxygen. It’s not that we talked about feelings all the time, or that I’d say something about my day and she’d ask, “How do you feel about that?”
Instead, it was more that no matter what I felt — sad, worried, mad, confused, lonely, whatever — it was never something to fix or make disappear. The world didn’t stop when I was unhappy or uncomfortable. It was never a big deal. I’d just have to feel whatever I felt — good or bad — and that, my mom believed, was the key to emotional health.
But this isn’t what I saw in many of my friends’ families. Ironically, it was homes with no therapists in them where feelings were constantly monitored. If friends were upset that a teacher gave them a bad grade, or they were left out of a social event, their parents would spring into action. First, they’d try to fix it — by talking to the teacher, or calling another parent — and if that didn’t work, they’d try to cheer up their kids by letting them have extra screen time or distracting them with a trip to the mall or allowing them to take off for what schools started calling a mental health day.
What if we were given the skills and confidence to turn toward those in crisis?
In my house, discomfort wasn’t just OK, it was encouraged. We talked about coping with difficult feelings, not avoiding them or trying to make them go away with screen time, the food court or parental involvement. My mom’s view was almost existential: Life is hard, and there’s no way around that. But if you can get comfortable with discomfort, she told me, you’ll be a more emotionally resilient person. If something upsetting happened to me, her typical response wasn’t, “That’s terrible! Let’s figure out what to do!” She’d say, “I understand why you’re upset” or just, “I’m sorry, and I’m here.” She’d sit and listen and hear me out, but then we’d go on with our days.
“I want you to be comfortable with discomfort,” my mom once said. It confused me at first, but then I understood: Because I’m OK with discomfort, I don’t fall apart when life gets, well, uncomfortable.
Ever since the surgeon general sounded the alarm on youth mental health in 2021, parents and educators have been trying to figure out how to help teens in my generation who are struggling amid rising rates of depression and anxiety. That’s an understandable goal. What worries me, though, is the possibility that many in my generation are confusing mental health issues with normal discomfort, to the point that the term “mental health” is becoming so diluted that it’s starting to lose meaning.
Social media play a large role in this, promoting pseudo-technical and pathologizing language — often leading to cancellation — as the antidote to emotional discomfort. Someone disagrees with you? They’re “gaslighting” you! Someone has the “wrong” point of view or perspective? They’re “toxic”! Someone declines to do what you ask? They have “no boundaries”! Instead of talking through these situations or trying to understand another perspective better, we run away to the supposed comfort of not having to deal with them. Click — they’re blocked.
Colleges have disinvited speakers who might be triggering to some students or created “safe spaces” where students can go instead; students in high schools and middle schools can choose not to attend assemblies that might be triggering; TV shows and podcasts tell us in advance that we might be triggered by a certain topic discussed, so we should skip that episode in case it makes us uncomfortable. We strive to make everyone comfortable, all the time and in every way — an impossible goal.
The election of Donald Trump was a turning point for these young adults, akin to 9/11 for millennials. Gen Zers realized as kids that American exceptionalism was a lie.
All of the warnings are well-intentioned and supposedly in service of our mental health. And of course, many people my age face mental health stressors that go far beyond the disappointments and conflicts of daily life. Anxiety and depression are serious concerns that need to be addressed, and treatment should be encouraged and accessible.
But I wonder if, more broadly, we’re normalizing an almost hyper-vigilant avoidance of anything uncomfortable. By insisting that the mere mention of something difficult is bad for our mental health, are we protecting ourselves from emotional damage — or damaging ourselves emotionally? Are we really that emotionally fragile, or are we teaching ourselves to become more fragile than we actually are?
Now, as a teenager, I appreciate that my mom didn’t always try to smooth things out for me. It taught me that rather than avoiding something uncomfortable, it’s often healthier to face it and see what happens. If we’re to fully promote mental health, discomfort should be part of its definition.
Zach Gottlieb is the 17-year-old founder of Talk With Zach and a high school student in Los Angeles.
Sign up for You Do ADU
Our six-week newsletter will help you make the right decision for you and your property.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.