Every recent generation has been influenced by the national conversation around pressing health issues. Generation X saw “your brain on drugs” and messaging from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Millennials grew up with constant anti- smoking campaigns. Today’s youth are flooded with messages about reducing obesity, limiting sugar intake, and the idea that “sitting is the new smoking.” As a result, this generation has a different idea of wellness. They are keenly aware that what they put in their body impacts their ability to do everything.

Focus on physical activity may account for part of Gen Z’s affinity for the physical world. Nature has also been something of a prescription for the challenge of growing up in an increasingly digital world. With campaigns including former first lady Michelle Obama’s Get Moving initiative, Gen Z has grown up understanding the critical need for outside play to counter the evils of excessive screen time. As a result, market research continually indicates that protecting the environment is a core value for Gen Z.

Gen Z is not only thinking about their physical health. Even before the pandemic, they took a holistic view of wellness and emphasized mental health. A 2019 American Psychological Association survey found that 91% of GenZ adults reported experiencing at least one physical or emotional symptom because of stress, such as feeling depressed or sad (58%) or lacking interest, motivation or energy (55%). Results of the survey noted that this socially-conscious generation considers headline issues like immigration, sexual assault, and climate change to be significant sources of stress. This is a group that has been encouraged more than any other generation to seek support for mental health. Gen Z’s rates of depression and suicidal thoughts are significantly higher than other groups.

How COVID amplified wellness awareness

Given Gen Z’s heath awareness, it is easy to imagine that the group would be overly sensitive to the health risks that come with COVID-19. While in some ways this is true, this age group has not historically carried as heavy a risk of severe illness due to COVID-19 as other age groups. This comparatively lower risk reinforced feelings of invincibility already typical to young people. It is a feeling that spurred thousands of college students to break social-distancing mandates for spring break in 2020 (and consequently contribute to local spread of the disease).

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on preexisting conditions, which makes Gen Z more conscious than previous generations of the need for preventive healthcare. An American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association survey conducted by One Poll found Gen Z to be more concerned about their health than any other generation. In that same survey, three-quarters of U.S. adults 18 to 23 admitted to worrying that ill health would impinge on their life experiences, compared to only 63% of Baby Boomers 56 and older.

Mental health concerns have also increased. Significant evidence indicates that the COVID-19 pandemic and the forced isolation required has been disastrous for Gen Z’s mental wellbeing. A June 2020 study by researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 63% of 18- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. reported experiencing some level of anxiety and depression due to the pandemic. A quarter of these young adults told CDC researchers that they had considered suicide in the past thirty days.

If there is a silver lining, it is that this “most depressed generation” is also the generation most likely to seek treatment for their mental health through counseling and therapy. That makes it critical to have these resources easily available on campus.

Tools for supporting wellness

Housing professionals remain on the frontlines of a major health crisis. The most valuable service they can provide to incoming Gen Z students is their continued recognition of distress indicators, behavioral changes and potentially alarming behavior among residents. Housing officers have long worked closely with on-campus clinical staff but should renew efforts to keep abreast of evolving resources for supporting students’ mental health.

In addition to sensitivity to behavioral signals, we must all be able to recognize any evolving symptoms of COVID-19 or other prevalent infections and have procedures in place for managing mandated isolation, observation, and quarantines.

The pandemic has added another dimension to this generation’s affinity for outdoor activities. Among the best tools at housing officers’ disposal for supporting social distancing and wellbeing are outdoor common areas. Residents will react positively to outdoor programming. Previously underutilized basketball courts, volleyball nets, and grills may see a resurgence in popularity with increased appreciation for outdoor socializing.

Supporting a connection to nature is an excellent strategy for housing professionals looking to encourage resident interaction for this health-conscious generation.

For more, download our full research on Welcoming Back Gen Z Residents in a Post-Pandemic World or register for our upcoming webinar.

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