Gen Z Georgians navigate inflation, elections and protests with mental health top of mind

Young man selecting food in grocery store isle
Georgia Southern University student and Mableton resident Niles Francis examines the prices of groceries on a recent shopping trip. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

From the COVID-19 pandemic to overseas conflict or rising inflation costs, Gen Z residents in Georgia feel they have experienced a lifetime of events in a short period of time.

This is in addition to the typical struggles in education, career and financial planning that many young people throughout the state are experiencing.

“You’re trying to figure out where you are going to live … what career you’re going to have,” said Georgia Southern University student Niles Francis. “It’s a lot to think about.”

Gen Z includes those born between 1997 and 2012, ranging from college graduates to rising high school students.

“About 40% of high schoolers [nationally] say that they feel they felt so sad and hopeless for at least two weeks that they were not able to do their typical activities,” said Dr. M. Daniele Fallin, PhD, dean of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health. “That’s a scary number.”

A 2023 national Gen Z study by Ernst & Young found that roughly two-thirds of report­ed expe­ri­enc­ing at least one mental health prob­lem within a two-year period.

That’s why young people say they are prioritizing their mental health as they navigate a world that, in some ways, is quite different than it was for the generations before them.

The social drain

Social media has a prevalent effect on all aspects of health. Sources describe it as both a blessing and a curse.

“If you’re on social media all the time, it may distract you from healthy sleep habits, it may distract you from other habits of going outside or doing other kinds of things that would promote your physical health,” said Fallin, before shifting gears to mental and emotional factors.

“Data would show is that if you’re seeing like more than three hours per day, there do tend to be these health consequences … some of the content that’s most concerning is content that you know, harms your sense of self, your appearance, your sense of belonging, your relative value and your own perceptions versus others with similar experiences.”

“You’re trying to figure out where you are going to live … what career you’re going to have … it’s a lot to think about.”

Niles Francis, Georgia Southern University student

Pricila Arroyo, a DeKalb resident in her early 20s, notes that while social media can be beneficial in spreading social and political awareness, it can also be detrimental to young people’s mental and emotional health. Especially when graphic and traumatic imagery sneaks up in the algorithm.

“You’re scrolling on TikTok or Instagram and you see like really funny videos, and the next thing you see is a really sad video … it just hits you, and it’s really hard to take in,” she said.

She says that while she tries her best to avoid graphic imagery, it often proves difficult. Much of her feed recently has been about the Israel-Hamas war.

“It’s really hard to navigate through that, but it’s also hard for me to ignore it and pass it because I want to be aware, and I want to think, ‘Oh, what can I do to help?'”

“[Social media users know] how to be angry, grieve, be happy, whatever those you know, processing emotions are and then how to recover back to my normal state, right?” Fallin said.

“And we, we all have done that kind of cycle, but when you’re bombarded with a new thing every literally two seconds to two minutes to two hours or whatever you allow yourself to do, it becomes really hard to maintain that mental health balance.”

After experiencing mental and emotional burnout from social media while attending high school, Kennesaw State University junior Case Hand has prioritized being mindful of how much time he spends online.

Young man with headphones recording a podcast with friends
Twenty-one-year-old Case Hand prepares to record a podcast with friends, one of the outlets that he credits with helping to preserve his mental health. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“I want to live in the moment and just remember everything … it helps to connect with people better,” he said.

He also notes that while he believes social media can be a great tool for communication and expressing one’s opinions, it can also quickly become very divisive and combative.

“It’s really a, think of what’s your standard of decency,” Hand said. “Some people have the decency that you have to like everybody, and you have to accept everybody for who they are, and you have to hear them out. And some people have the idea of decency to where [they believe] ‘ I don’t have to like you [or your beliefs].”

Seen, but heard?

In the middle of an election year and with growing political unrest overseas, more Gen Z Georgians are working to make their stances known and have their voices heard.

Pro-Palestinian protests have spread through various colleges and universities throughout the state.

“So first, we just have to acknowledge that moment that that current protest environment is not the first time that this particular generation has been exposed to the feeling that they need to go and protest,” Fallin said, noting younger people’s contributions to the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements.

Atlanta Police Department and Georgia State Partrol clashing with Pro-Palestinian and “Cop City” protesters on Emory Campus
Arrests are made as Atlanta Police Department and Georgia State Partrol order Pro-Palestinian and “Cop City” protesters to disperse from the quad on Emory University campus on Thursday, April 25, 2024. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“But across the country and really now across the globe, we are seeing that this is manifesting particularly on campuses of higher ed.”

Fallin notes that while many students feel inspired in their efforts, they may also feel drained of their mental health and fearful of their safety.

“Folks are feeling the counterbalance of ‘I’m doing something, but I’m not being heard’ or ‘I’m doing something, but I’m not feeling safe,’ and those are important things that we have to figure out how to help support each other.”

She adds that at Rollins, open dialogue about uncomfortable subjects has been essential in ensuring students feel safe psychologically and physically.

“[Fostering safe spaces] to share and express opinions in ways that are productive…allow [students] to feel the positive psychological effect of doing something rather than feeling unseen and unheard,” she said.

“It’s really hard to navigate through [social media], but it’s also hard for me to ignore it and pass it, because I want to be aware and I want to think, ‘Oh, what can I do to help?'”

Pricila Arroyo, Gen Z Georgia resident

Election woes

The upcoming presidential election is another source of frustration and anxiety for many young people this year.

“Many of us are not particularly thrilled to have to choose between Joe Biden and Donald Trump again, but here we are,” said Francis.

Poll worker cleaning voting cards
A poll worker Dawn Perry cleans voting cards during the midterm election Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022 at Church of the Redeemer in Sandy Springs, Ga. (AP Photo/Ben Gray, File)

Arroyo says that while she plans to vote, she is undecided on who to vote for, citing a lack of trust for candidates.

“With anyone who’s gotten into office, they give you these promises,” she said. “Obviously, they want you to vote for them, so they give you what you want to hear … and I feel like there have been a lot of false promises.”

Despite her disappointment with the current political climate, she still believes that younger people should vote for those they think will best serve their futures.

“This is really like the last hurrah for our grandparents’ generation in office,” Hand said, who believes that many elected offices are not addressing issues that matter most to young people.

According to Fallin, the uncertainty of which candidate will be in office come November can elicit a sense of fear and nervousness among many young people about the country’s political and social direction.

“Just that uncertainty of not knowing can be a psychological distress for a lot of people,” said Fallin, citing the importance of support systems and personal activities to help relieve stress.

“Being aware that the next six to eight months of time in this country are going to be really challenging, and figuring out ways to think about tools for resilience individually and for the community, is going to be important.”

Sky high prices

In connection with politics, another stress factor among many Gen Z Georgians has been the economy, particularly rising costs that Francis says barely allow young adults to live comfortably.

According to a recent Ernst & Young national study, 65% of Gen. Z surveyed held a full-time or part-time job in 2022, and nearly 40% held both a job and a “side hustle.”

“Many of us have trouble even just going to the grocery store. Some of us are struggling, some of us are having to work multiple jobs … and that’s outside of school, which is expensive in itself,” said Francis, who works two jobs while being a full-time student.

Man choosing item in grocery store isle.
Georgia Southern University and Mableton resident Niles Francis examines the prices of groceries during a recent shopping trip. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Hand worries about how inflation and limited job opportunities will affect the futures of him and his friends.

“There is never going to be a homeowner anymore,” he said, referencing Wall Street’s purchasing of single-family homes. “Up until COVID, you could buy a home [although] it was getting increasingly more difficult, but inflation absolutely skyrocketed and minimum wage did not raise with that.”

He also notes the frustration many his age feel when older generations do not fully understand Gen Z residents’ struggle to kickstart their lives and careers.

“Our parents’ generation and grandparents’ generation will never understand that struggle,” he said. “My parents are truly stuck within their ways and say, ‘Well if you work hard, you can afford a home one day,’ and that’s just not the case.”

Arroyo adds that the search for a well-paying job, especially after spending thousands of dollars on higher education, has caused unexpected setbacks.

“Being aware that the next six to eight months of time in this country are going to be really challenging, and figuring out ways to think about tools for resilience individually and for the community, is going to be important.”

Dr. M. Daniele Fallin, dean of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health

While Arroyo still lives at home, she has seen firsthand the struggles of her friends and peers in trying to juggle multiple financial responsibilities.

“It’s been pretty hard [for them] to keep up with rents and bills … and finding jobs nowadays have become very, very difficult,” she said. “Even with a good pay rate.”

Fallin says that the stress of financial stability even affects younger Gen. Z members, her high school-aged son included.

“He said, ‘I’m worried that we’re going to have, as a generation, have to work twice as hard for half buying power,’ and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a lot.’ That’s heavy for someone at a young age to really feel like that’s what my future is.”

Man pushing grocery cart in parking lot
Georgia Southern University and Mableton resident Niles Francis arrives to his car after shopping for groceries. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Living for the future

Despite the challenges ahead of them, Fallin believes that Gen Z still hopes to maintain healthy levels of stress and mental wellness.

“These social determinants of mental health are real,” she said. “It can feel overwhelming, and I would get that back to the idea that the most positive thing you can do for your own individual mental health is to figure out where in that very large puzzle of challenges you can do small things that can affect your feeling of contributing to the solution.”

In search of a way to express his opinions, Hand and a couple of his friends created Kuttin’ Loose, a comedy-based podcast that started earlier this year. He credits the outlet as a primary factor sustaining strong mental and emotional health.

“I kind of put my own perspective as a Gen Z[er],” he said when discussing being the youngest out of his two co-hosts.

Young men laughing while recording podcast.
Case Hand (far right) laughs while recording “Kuttin’ Loose”, a comedy podcast that he co-hosts with (from left to right) Maireg Chernet, Sir. Jeffery Sailor and Holden Schneider. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Arroyo, who currently works two jobs and often seven days a week, has begun planning time with friends and for herself as a way to ease the demands of her heavy workload.

“I had to start changing my mind and perspective on things and start thinking, ‘what can I do after I get off work,'” she said. “I started making plans or treating myself … that’s also helped a lot.”

While anticipating potential career opportunities in his last semester at Georgia Southern, Francis has taken up exercising, saying that it gives him something to work for outside of his career and academics.

“And this is also the nerd side of me, but I also like watching ‘Jeopardy,'” he said. “Ken Jennings has said it himself: it is the only 30 minutes of the day when facts matter to everybody.”