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Understanding the Impact of Collective Trauma on the Mental Health of the Millennial Generation

Understanding the Impact of Collective Trauma on the Mental Health of the Millennial Generation
Tiffany Hall, MS, LMFT
April 1, 2021

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Editor’s note: This text-based course is an edited transcript of the webinar, Understanding the Impact of Collective Trauma on the Mental Health of the Millennial Generation, presented by Tiffany Hall, MS, LMFT.


Learning Outcomes


After this course, participants will be able to:

  • Define the psychosocial identifiers of millennials.
  • Analyze the impact collective trauma has had on the mental health of millennials.
  • Examine potential treatment issues millennials experience.
  • Identify potential clinical interventions to address the mental health challenges Millennials experience.

Who are Millennials?

First, it is important to define who encompasses millennials because oftentimes I hear millennials has been sort of a buzz term or catch-all term for young people. Although according to the Pew Research Center, most millennials are actually adults born between 1981 to about 1996. Therefore, the oldest millennials are in their early 40s at this time, and the youngest millennials are about 25 years old at the time of this recording.

They are also the largest living adult generation in the United States being the descendants of baby boomers which were previously the largest living adult generation.  They are also the most ethnically and racially diverse adult generation in the United States. 

Strauss and Howe, who were authors in 1987 were the ones that coined these monikers for the different generations. They are the ones that coined the term millennials. Remember, millennials are adults. Gen Z are the ones that often get mistaken for millennials, and they are actually all, mostly still children, the oldest are about 21. 

For the purpose of this training, I thought it was important to provide a distinction between older and younger millennials, because some of the millennials that I see in my practice talk about their different experiences compared to millennials that were born a little bit earlier in the '80s, and those that were included closer to Gen Z in terms of their overall experiences.

Now, of course, this is not to describe the overall individual experiences, this is more of an overview of what I see in my practice, but also I myself am a millennial. So, I also have lots of lived experience with this, and one of the defining features that describe millennials is that this is the last living generation to experience a life pre-internet and social media. I will talk about this a little bit later, but this has had a really big influence on the ways that millennials experience the world and also how they experience each other. 

Myths About Millennials

There are a lot of myths about millennials. As I said before millennials are often used to refer to people who are simply younger, and along with that, it is more like, "Oh those millennials, those kids, these days." This could apply to almost any generation. 

In 2006, a psychologist by the name of Jean Twenge released a book called "Generation Me,” and this book talked about how millennials are much more narcissistic than previous generations, such as Gen X and Baby Boomers when they were about the same age. According to Twenge, millennials are very self-absorbed, very individualistic, also very obsessed with their phones, the internet, and social media; and just kind of overall irresponsible with their money and kind of throw cash into the wind.

I would say a lot of this can describe almost anyone. I think this is also a very Western American sort of capitalist sort of way of relating to the world. So again, I think this also influences the way that millennials view themselves and also the world around them. 

Millennial Childhood

Let's talk about millennial childhood. Again, more of a general overview, because everyone's individual experiences may be much different. Although, I think it is important to explore some of the things that millennials grew up experiencing as children because it has largely influenced how they see themselves in the world and their adulthood. 

Millennials were raised by baby boomers, and if you are familiar, baby boomers came up in the post-world war era when there were much more economic stability and opportunity.

An era with what we kind of see as the American dream of homeownership, living in the middle class, and having access to upward mobility. Therefore, millennials grew up in a time of greater affluence and had more resources, and thus, they equate this to what success looks like. Adulthood is having a house, a car, and 2.5 kids. 

There was also a greater focus on child development. The late '80s and early '90s were a time where people had more resources, so there was a lot more exploration into the self and in mental health and wellness and self-improvement. Talking about mental health became a lot more socially acceptable. There was a lot more literature available to explore the inner worlds of children and their mental health, and because of that, millennials kind of grew up thinking that their mental health was something to prioritize. 

Also, because baby boomers grew up in a time where there was much more affluence, you had women who had much more economic opportunity and financial independence. Some of the traditional family structures that we were seeing celebrated in prior generations, started to become a little bit more diverse in millennial childhood. Normalization of divorce is one of them, which allowed for much more blended families or families headed by a single parent. There are also families where millennials grew up where they had caregivers that were not someone who they were biologically related to. In addition, millennials saw their peers living in more diverse family structures.

Millennials also got introduced to computer technology at a very young age. This was a time when computers were becoming a little bit more ingrained into everyday life. There were computers taught in schools and there were many more people owning computers in the home. Therefore, there was greater accessibility to computer technology. Also, millennials kind of grew up along with technology as it evolved. Also, as being children of the post-civil rights movement, millennials grew up in a much more racially and ethnically integrated society. It was a lot more socially acceptable to have romantic partnerships with people that were outside of their race, and a lot more people were socializing in racially integrated spaces. In addition, there was a lot more diversity in gender and sexuality expression as well. So, you see a lot more differences in the way that millennials view relationships and families.

Millennials in Adulthood

A lot of what millennials experienced in their childhood has really influenced the way that they experience adulthood. One of the biggest markers is the fact that millennials have much higher rates of educational attainment than previous generations like Gen X-ers and baby boomers. A lot of it is like I told you before about the wider economic opportunity, and college became a lot more accessible and a lot more normalized. Previous generations did not really need to rely on getting a degree in order to have access to that stable middle-class lifestyle that we saw many of our parents and grandparents obtain.

Millennials were taught that in order to have access to that, they needed to at least have a college degree. Because of that, millennials are prolonging some of the more traditional markers of adulthood like marriage and owning a home or having a family. It is also important to note that millennials are prolonging traditional markers of adulthood because of the fact that they have more student loan debt which inhibits the ability to be able to have access to these things. 

There are also higher rates of poverty and unemployment among millennials. Millennials came up in a time where there is a little bit more economic instability, which is something that our parents did not experience. In addition, millennials experience greater debt loads, a lot of unemployment and underemployment, and a lot of millennials deal with jobs that do not pay the wages that they need in order to pay off their student loan debt.

There is a lot more economic instability among this generation. Also, millennials are more likely to prioritize work/life balance. What I mean by that is not that millennials do not value money or material success. It is more so that millennials do not want to have their careers interfere with their own personal fulfillment. They want to be able to work jobs that do not interfere with living their lives. 

Traumatic Events in the Millennial Lifespan

Let's talk about some of the traumatic events that have occurred in the millennial lifespan:

  • School shootings
  • September 11th
  • The Great Recession
  • The Iraq/Afghanistan War
  • Covid-19 Pandemic

This is by no means a comprehensive list. There is so much more that has happened around the world and everyone's experience of course is going to be different. But I am more so referring to what has happened in the United States over the course of the last 20 years or so.

One of the things I think that stuck out the most was school shootings. Of course, school shootings have existed in prior generations, but they become a lot more commonplace for the millennial generation, and also because we came of age in the 24-hour news cycle, we have a lot more exposure to these images of these traumatic events. So, if we remember Columbine, which happened in 1999, that was a big turning point when school started to feel unsafe. For a long time school was considered to be the safest place that you could be, but once school shootings became a lot more commonplace, a lot more frequent, then school started to kind of feel like a place that was dangerous.

Along with that September 11th, which is one of the most tragic events that has happened in the United States in our lifetime currently. Some of the older millennials were probably in their teens and early twenties when this happened, so they may have a lot more vivid memories of this. The younger millennials may have been around five or six, so they might remember but it might be kind of fuzzy. September 11th was a turning point in the way that we saw the world as being safe. Prior to this, a lot of us had not experienced an attack that happened on U.S. soil. Knowing that the United States, this great powerful nation that we have been taught that it was, was vulnerable to an attack like this made us feel much more unsafe.

Couple that with feeling unsafe at school and unsafe in the world, and it kind of did not really feel like anywhere was safe. 

The great recession, which is probably one of the consequences of September 11th. This was a time when many millennials were coming of age, again like late teens, early twenties. The older millennials were probably graduating high school or just coming into their adulthood during this time. This caused a huge strain on their economic development because of the fact that this created a lot more economic instability. A lot of millennials still have not been able to rebound from that. They may have had their 401ks wiped out, or some of their career economic goals were just not attainable because of this. This also interfered with their experience of adulthood. 

Then the Iraq and Afghanistan war. This was probably the war that many millennials actually fought in or had their peers or loved ones fight in, and this is a war that was going on for a very long time. This war existed in our public discourse for many years.

Last, the COVID-19 pandemic which I shared in a previous training that I did is still ongoing. So, we still have yet to see what the long-term effects of this will be, but it is already from what I am seeing and I am sure many of you are living with has created a lot of stress, a lot of feelings of uncertainty, and again instability.

Collective Trauma and the Impact on Generational Mental Health

It is very, very hard for people to feel safe when things feel very unsafe and unstable. So, how has all of this impacted, the mental health of millennials? In addition to being known as the “generation me,” or all of the other sort of monikers given to the millennial generation we are also known as the “anxious generation.” I think part of that is because again, we are much more comfortable discussing our mental health challenges publicly. Talking amongst our peers or our friends. There is a lot more language to put to mental health, therefore we are known to be a little bit more anxious just because of that we are probably talking about it a little bit more.

In addition, we have lived through so many of these traumas, and we are able to openly discuss how those traumas have impacted us. Also, there is a term, I do not know if you are familiar with called "helicopter parenting." This is often kind of gets grouped in with the millennial experience that we grew up having these parents that kind of hovered over us and made us feel more anxious that, that we could not really function for ourselves but that is likely not everyone's experience.

Millennials do not really have the same level of trust in their institutions as previous generations. Millennials are more disengaged from organized religion, even those who may be involved in faith communities may incorporate other practices or they may kind of just use those communities as a place to experience socialization but do not adhere to any specific sort of dogma.

Marriage is another institution that millennials do not have as much faith in. A lot of that is because of the normalization of divorce. Also, millennials have a lot more choices, because of the fact that women had the option to be financially independent or able to live lives that do not rely on marriage in order to create that feeling of stability that previous generations experienced. 

In addition, we learned to prioritize our mental health and personal fulfillment over material wealth. Material wealth is often seen as the marker of success in American culture, but for a lot of millennials, we just want to be able to be happy, to feel peaceful, and to also feel safe in the world. Going through all these traumas and seeing how they impacted, perhaps our grandparents and our parents, we want to do something different. 

Millennials in Relationships

 A big bulk of my practice is millennials, and a lot of what I see in my practice is our relationship issues. Relationships are always going to come with challenges but millennials, I think have some unique challenges because of the way that we experience relationships. A lot of it is because of, again, that lack of social trust in our institutions. Marriage is not necessarily considered to be the goal or a marker of success that it once was. Some millennials are finding alternative ways to build relationships and family structures that do not rely on marriage as the focal point.

Also, a lot of millennials do not believe that you need to be married in order to have a family. In previous generations especially baby boomers and earlier, it was not socially acceptable to have children and be unmarried. Nowadays, that is very common. There are a lot of women that I have talked to who choose to be single moms. There is also plenty of couples who choose to be parents and have no desire to get married. And they are able to still live very happy fulfilling lives without marriage, again, being short of that focal point of stability. 

Because millennials have kind of grew up along with the internet and social media, it has become more and more ingrained into our everyday lives, and thus many millennials rely on social media very heavily to both obtain and maintain their relationships. A lot of the people who I talk to who are dating, report one of the most common ways to meet partners is on dating apps. Communicating with people via text. We all have smartphones. Well, not we all, but a lot of us have smartphones now. And smartphones are pretty much like little computers in our pockets. So you're able to pretty much do everything from these little devices, including, communicating with people. Also because of the fact that there are more people who belong to the LGBTQ community who are open and expressing their various gender and sexual identities, there are also many who are exploring non-traditional relationships. I see a lot of folks in my practice who are polyamorous. Those are people who have more than one romantic relationship or have more than one partner. Non-monogamy is similar to polyamory. There are people who do not really believe monogamy works for them, and I have plenty of folks who practice these non-traditional relationships who have happy fulfilling lives and relationships. 

Again, because there are so many millennials who are very open in expressing their gender and sexuality, this means that gender roles may look a lot different than previous generations have expressed in their relationships. A lot of what we have been taught about relationships is based on this White cis-gender heterosexual model and a lot of folks, not just millennials, a lot of folks do not fit into any of that. So, they have to find gender roles that make sense for them. 

Millennials in Treatment: Things to Consider

Some things to consider with millennials and treatment, because of the fact that millennials are much more comfortable discussing mental health openly they are also a lot more comfortable seeking treatment. It is very common for millennials to talk about seeing a therapist with their peers or going to therapy is seen very similar to like going to a doctor or any other healthcare provider. A lot of times millennials will come in treatment already having had therapy, or at least have some familiarity with it. Millennials are more likely to be comfortable embracing other methods of treatment, such as meditation, reiki, yoga, other Eastern medicinal practices.

A lot of these are great supplements to therapy, and they are also other ways for millennials to explore healing on the way to building that personal fulfillment that they are seeking. Millennials, because of the fact again, that they have grown up alongside the internet and social media and have developed a comfortability with using technology, it is easier for us to access things like telehealth be it via, online therapy or text therapy, or other alternative forms of therapy that are not face-to-face talk therapy. Millennials also experience higher rates of suicide and substance abuse than previous generations. Part of that may be because millennials are accessing treatment at higher rates than previous generations, so these things are getting reported. But then also there are just a lot more challenges that millennials are facing as they try to find their footing in adulthood. White millennials especially are struggling with opioid use disorder, and I know many folks may remember in the past couple of years that this has become a prominent issue that has been discussed in a public health sphere around White millennials, middle-class people suffering from opioid abuse.

Though millennials have an easier time talking about therapy and have more of a willingness to access therapy, there are some very real challenges and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association did a report in 2019 that talked about some of the trends in behavioral health. In their report, millennials cited time and costs as a major barrier to accessing mental health treatment. This barrier exists because a lot of times their work schedules do not allow for it or they work jobs that do not provide healthcare benefits that would cover the cost of mental health treatment, or therapy just might be out of reach because some therapists/providers do not accept insurance. These things can create some real challenges when it comes to accessing treatment. 

Millennials in Treatment: The Role of Social Media

Social media, social media, social media. This comes up so often in my practice because social media has become again so deeply ingrained. It is not only the way that millennials relate to each other but just people in general, and that is quite a gift and a curse because social media allows us to connect with folks pretty much anywhere that we are. Millennials have grown up with that. 

A lot of us like myself included adopted social media kind of later in life when we were sort of in our early teens, early twenties when it was really starting to take off in the early 2000s. But along with that, there is kind of an over-reliance on social media in order to have a social connection, and because a lot of millennials were adopting social media at a time that they were coming into their adulthood, they have now used what they see on social media as a barometer to compare themselves to their peers. I hear all the time about, people in my practice, seeing that their friends see them posting all these pictures of themselves on these fabulous vacations or posting about their promotions at work or seeing how happy they are in their relationship.

It's like, "Man, everybody is living a life that's better than mine." So, there is this need to compare based on what they see on their social media feed. This can also create feelings of low self-worth because when you are using that to compare your own success what you are seeing is not a realistic depiction. It is the highlights of someone's life or basically want somebody wants, everyone else to see. 

Because there is such a heavy reliance on social media to connect with people, there are sometimes people who rely very heavily on social media just to have a social outlet. There are people I see in my practice who work a lot who maybe have hours that are not conducive to socializing after work or on the weekends, so they use social media as a way to connect with their peers. Although, that can exacerbate or create feelings of loneliness because social media or even things like FaceTime and all of that are not adequate replacements for face-to-face social interaction. 

There is a lot of nuances that get missed. A lot of millennials I see, especially now with the COVID-19 pandemic who have seen social media as a lifeline, so that they do not feel so isolated but at the same time feel isolated because it just seems like everybody else is having a better time than them. Social media can also influence relationship expectations and not just social media I think smartphones in general. So, we will kind of just say smartphones. Smartphones create this false sense that everyone is accessible 24/7, and that means that people should be responsive immediately. I do not know how many times I have talked with someone in my practice, who is dating someone or in a relationship and analyze the speed at which someone responds to a text or they analyze how many likes they have gotten on a picture or the comments on the posts that they made. Our expectations of what normal is and the relationship has been skewed because of social media and smartphones. Not all good and not all bad, just some things to consider. 

Millennials in Treatment: Clinical Implications

In my practice these are some of the common themes that I'm seeing with my millennial clients:

  • What does it mean to be an adult?
  • How can I achieve work/life balance?
  • Will I ever be financially stable?
  • Will I ever be able to have a career that is meaningful?
  • How do I identify?

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, there are far more issues that come up. These are some of the common things that come up and they are related to these questions that a lot of my clients are asking themselves.

What does it mean to be an adult?

One of the questions that millennial clients are asking is “what does it mean to be an adult?” Especially an adult in 2021, when there is so much that has happened in the past year alone and because of the fact that a lot of us have delayed the traditional markers of adulthood, such as buying a house, getting married, or starting a family. It can feel like, we are experiencing an extended adolescence so to speak. When you are not able to have those milestones, it can skew your perspective on what being an adult actually means. If I do not have a house or if I'm in all of this student loan debt, am I really doing adulthood, right? This comes up a lot. 

How can I achieve work/life balance?

So again, like I was explaining earlier, millennials really value having their work not interfering with their enjoyment of their personal life. Although a lot of times millennials are working in jobs where it is very difficult to achieve that work/life balance. I would also argue that because we live in a capitalist system that a work/life balance is almost impossible to achieve because of the fact that a lot of us derive a lot of our self-worth from productivity in the work that we do. Therefore, millennials are trying to figure out how does work fit into my life as opposed to how does my life fit around my work? 

Will I ever be financially stable?

This is a big one because this relates to that feeling of being a successful adult. Millennials carry a huge debt load because a lot of us grew up thinking that we had to go get a college degree in order to have access to that American dream, that stable middle-class lifestyle that we saw previous generations obtain. Remember also that baby boomers specifically were able to a lot of them were able to have that lifestyle without going to college and thus not taking on the same debt load. They were starting off their adulthood without getting a head start financially. Whereas millennials are already a little bit behind because they are having to pay off debt. Also, millennials may be working jobs in which they are not making wages that pay enough to pay off their debt or pay their bills overall. Therefore, it can feel like they are not able to get ahead financially and obtain those things like a house or a partner or any other financial goals. 

Will I ever be able to have a career that is meaningful?

Millennials want to be successful. They want to be able to be happy and that a lot of times comes with having a job that does not just pay well but am I doing meaningful work? Am I feeling purposeful? Am I doing work that makes me feel good about who I am? It is very difficult for millennials to feel like they can have it all and be able to have a career that is fulfilling but that also pays well and helps them to pay off their debt and allows them to have a sense of self-worth. 

How do I identify?

This is a very common one, "how do I identify?" Identity work is a big part of what I help millennial clients with, in my practice. This comes with how do I identify sexually? People who are exploring their sexuality, how do I identify in terms of gender? How do I want to express my gender? How do I identify racially and ethnically?

A lot of millennials have been said to really value being unique and not following the traditional norms. A lot of that also comes with exploring how they want to show up in the world and how they want to be perceived. 

Millennials in Treatment: Special Populations

  • Black/Latinx/POC
    • Underdiagnosed for mental health conditions compared to White millennials
    • Cultural values/stigma


  • LGBTQ+
    • Trauma from the healthcare community

These are of course marginalized groups who are already coming to treatment with trauma because the trauma of being in a marginalized group is prevalent in their everyday lives. Black and Brown folks are still accessing treatment but not at the same rates as their White millennial peers. Therefore they go underdiagnosed for mental health conditions. It does not mean that they do not have them, it just means they are not being reported because there is a lack of access.

There also may be some cultural stigmas around therapy. One of the things I have seen in my practice, especially with some of my Black clients, is that therapy is for quote-unquote "White people." It is a thing that they just do not do. This comes from an overall sense of distrust in the institution of mental health which was traditionally a very White, very cis male-centered practice. In addition, there may be a little bit of a lack of trust in therapists and authority figures overall, and some also may have been taught that airing your dirty laundry to strangers is frowned upon. You know, all the things that happened in your household do not need to leave the household. So, there may be some discomfort with being truly vulnerable in treatment. 

With the LGBTQ+ population, a lot of them experience some of the very same issues as Black and Brown folks, especially those who belong to the LGBTQ+ community and who are also Black and Brown. A lot of the LGBTQ+ folks that I see in my practice have a lot of trauma from the healthcare community in general. Health providers miss-gendering them, or not being affirming as providers.  These individuals are coming to treatment with some very heavy trauma, and they may also have some challenges to accessing treatment either because of financial issues, or they may live in areas where there is not a lot of providers that are affirming available. There also may be a lack of education around treatment and what treatment is supposed to be for. 

Case Study

These are snapshots of some of the things that I commonly see in my clinical work with millennials. 

Case Study: Tasha

  • 27 years old
  • In grad school getting PhD and works part-time
  • Living at home with parents to save money while in school
  • Experiencing depression and anxiety
  • Worries about growing student loan debt and future job prospects
  • Does not feel like a "real" adult due to living with parents

Lets talk about Tasha. Tasha is 27 years old and is in grad school getting her PhD. She is working part-time and is living at home with her parents in order to save money while she completes her doctorate. She is experiencing depression and anxiety. One of her primary concerns that brings her to treatment is anxiety about her growing debt load. 

I see this a lot. As people will continue to obtain more and more education that also means taking out more loans and being deeper into debt. Some of the folks that I see who are in academia, who either are teaching or getting their doctorate, worry about future job prospects. They are spending all this money to pay for their education, but they are uncertain about whether or not they will be able to get a job that is going to allow them to pay off the debt. 

Tasha with all of this, of course, is not feeling like she is doing adulthood, right. She is living at home with her parents and she is sleeping in her childhood bedroom. She feels like, “I'm 27 years old. I don't really feel like a real grownup here.”

Case Study: Cay

  •  33 years old
  • White/Non-binary
  • Works as a resturant manager, lives with partner and roommate
  • Experiences depression due to financial issues and job stress (low pay, expensive health insurance)
  • Ambivalence about having children/marriage

Cay is 33 years old, White/non-binary. For those who are not familiar with the term non-binary, non-binary folks are those who do not subscribe to the binary gender spectrum being male or female. We are going to refer to Cay as they. 

Cay works as a restaurant manager and lives with their partner and roommate. This is the experience of many millennials that I see, who in order to reduce housing costs usually have to live with someone else. Cay is experiencing depression due to financial issues and job stress. Being a restaurant manager oftentimes requires working a lot of long hours maybe some non-traditional hours (meaning outside of the 9-5), and this job is not really paying the type of wages that Cay needs in order to afford their lifestyle.

This job, while it does provide benefits, they are not comprehensive. Cay is paying a higher premium and perhaps this insurance does not cover all of the services that they need. Therefore there is a lot of stress around whether or not they are going to be able to afford to take care of their health. 

Also, there is some ambivalence about having children and getting married. This comes up a lot too. When folks were thinking about what it means to be an adult. It is like do I want to have a family? Do I want to adopt these traditional markers of adulthood and success? When I, myself do not really feel like I am living that traditional sort of life.

Case Study: Clinical Application 

  • Validate experience
  • Acknowledge systemic issues contributing to stress
  • Define what being an adult means to them
  • Explore cultural/personal expectations of self. Are they realistic?

These are just some ways in which we can approach these things and treatment. Cay and Tasha, again those are just snapshots. There is a lot of issues to explore that I did not list, but here are some things I think that are important to hone in on when working with millennials, who are coming in with similar issues. 

First and foremost, validate their experiences. I say this because of the fact that a lot of millennials have experienced a lot of shame either from society, or their parents or from themselves; because they are not doing enough and because they may be lagging behind their peers in their educational attainment or they may have pressure from parents about when they are going to get married or when they are going to have children or when they're going to buy a house.

It is important to validate that their experiences are real and that they do cause some real stress and also acknowledge the real structural and systemic issues that contribute to those problems. A lot of the reasons why millennials are struggling with things is not because they are lazy or they lack the work ethic of previous generations. A lot of the time these issues are from how our world is currently structured. I believe the average student loan debt for a lot of millennials is around $30,000 and that is just the average. There are certainly some who have more than that. So, think about that. Also, the fact that we live in an economic time where the cost of living is continuing to increase but wages have stagnated, so it is becoming a lot more expensive just to survive every single day. 

These are things that are contributing to the experiences of that extended adolescence that I talked about earlier, of feeling like you are not doing adulthood correctly. Therefore, it is important for millennials to decide what does being an adult mean for them, not what do their parents think that it should look like, and not what do their peers think it should look like. But, what does it look like for them personally because everyone's idea of what success is and what happiness is, is very subjective. 

As practitioners, we have to help clients to hone in on what that looks like for them, individually. Of course, this will be influenced by what they had been told by their peers and their culture and so on and so forth. But ultimately, they get to decide. 

This is a big one, this last one is to explore cultural and personal expectations of self. Because a lot of times people have these very unrealistic expectations of what they are supposed to be doing. And again, that could be influenced by their parents, their culture, their peers, and a lot of what we experience in living in a Western capitalist society is that our work takes precedence over our personal life. 

I hear a lot of folks saying that they feel like they are not being productive enough because they are not spending all of their waking hours working towards some sort of monetized task. It is okay for people to just be who they are without these titles attached to them. As a therapist we have to ask our millennial clients, is what they are expecting of themselves and their adulthood, realistic? 

Question and Answers

How do you, as a therapist validate that client's experience and dismantle the false realities that are presented on social media?

It is very important I think to normalize it. This is not a singular sort of experience. I mean, this is something that I am seeing across the board with millennials of all ages. Not even just millennials, because I think there are some Gen Xers who are on that cusp that may be experiencing it too. I think it is really important for people to be realistic about what social media is. Social media is a tool and it allows us to edit ourselves, it allows us to share how we want people to perceive us.  I remind folks that what you are seeing is often a very exaggerated view or a very heavily edited view of somebody's life. You are not seeing all of the groundwork it took for them to get to that promotion or the debt that they had to go into to pay for that vacation. 

It is really important to hone in on the fact that you are seeing what somebody wants to show you. You are not seeing the entire picture. For example, with the client Tasha, you are trying to highlight- this is a temporary experience. Her being in school, she will eventually finish and graduate and likely will go on to obtain some sort of career, but right now it kind of feels like she is not doing enough. Being in a PhD program is pretty intense from what I understand, so that in itself just shows that she has the capability to be very successful in life. In addition, you want to talk about some of the traits that have allowed her to be able to be in a doctorate program. What has allowed her to do that? Because those same traits will likely help her to be successful after that.

How do we (practitioners) help our clients convey to their parents that adulthood looks different for them than it did for their parents?

I am big on boundaries. Setting boundaries with family is really important because a lot of times parents will project their idea of what success is onto their children. A lot of that is coming from their own trauma. I think a lot of parents generally, want their children to do better than they did, so it does come from a good place. 

It is important for folks to really have boundaries with their family and say “I respect that this is what you want for me” or I understand where you are coming from, but I want you to respect my own agency, that I have the agency to make choices for myself and in my life.” Boundaries are not a punishment, they are a way to maintain a relationship with someone while also protecting your own well-being. I think folks need to be very mindful that they do not have to necessarily agree, but they have to respect each other's differences, and that is really what boundaries are about. 

I see this a lot with some of the first-generation clients that I see, whose parents are immigrants. Their parents have sacrificed so much to come to this country and to build a stable life for them, and they want their children to be able to continue that trend. Although, the reality is that the things that were put in place to allow them to do that look much different now, economically. We live in a much more economically volatile time. Like I was saying earlier, our parents were able to do a lot more with less. They could have a high school diploma and manage to buy a house and have families and do all of these things that many millennials are trying to do, but the playing field looks a lot different. I think it is important to educate parents about that as well. It's like, "Yeah, I understand that you worked hard, you did all of this, but things were a lot different for you during that time. That's not the reality that I'm living in right now."

A lot of millennials that I see feel like it is them that is doing something wrong, that maybe they are not working hard enough, or perhaps they should have gone back and got that degree that they did not finish. Although, that is not necessarily the issue. The issue is that despite how educated this generation is, there are some very real barriers to the upward mobility that our parents in previous generations were able to achieve.

Can you speak to how we (helping professionals) should be positioning ourselves to work with millennial clients as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic?

At the start of this pandemic, one of my biggest worries was the overall impact of social isolation, because as human beings we are wired to be social. A lot of the isolation that we are having to live through in order to protect our physical health has become very detrimental to our mental health, and millennials I think were already struggling because of what I mentioned earlier about how economically unstable a lot of us feel. A lot of us have already been trying to regain some of the losses that happened after the great recession, and this is just yet another blow to that.

There is likely going to be some PTSD, and as practitioners, I think we have to be mindful too that we are living in this trauma along with our clients and me being a millennial, I'm experiencing this kind of similarly to my millennial clients. Therefore, I think for us, we have to be very mindful that again this is an ongoing issue that we are still kind of learning what the impact is going to be. The social isolation for some folks that I have seen has allowed them to become a lot more focused on their wellness. A lot of them have been re-engaging in things like yoga or other practices that have helped to enhance their overall mental health.

Then there are others who are really suffering right now. Those who are maybe more extroverted or who just miss having their normal routines. Also, remember being at home is not safe for everybody, and they may be living like a lot of millennials live with roommates or they live with parents or partners. So, there is a lack of privacy and this may also exacerbate some of those feelings of not doing adulthood right because they cannot make it through life independently.

I just encourage folks to internalize the fact that there is a very wide range of normal emotional responses to what is happening right now. Millennials, I think, prior to this probably one of the most massive losses I think that we have witnessed probably was the September 11th attacks. As we are recording today, there have been more than 10x  those losses of life. So, we are dealing with loss on a very grand scale. Everyone has lost something, whether it's a loved one or just a sense of normal, a sense of safety in the world. There is going to be some ongoing grief that we are going to have to help folks process. 

Grief is not a linear experience. There will be days where things kind of feel, okay but then there will be days even a couple of years down the line where people may be triggered by some of what is going on. It is really concerning to me, seeing how long we have had to sort of live in this isolation.

It is necessary in order to keep us safe physically, but having to sacrifice our mental health in order to protect our physical health is something that we have not really had to do. So, this is all very new. People are coping but those with more resources are going to obviously have an easier time with this than others who may have fewer resources. Again, I just encourage folks that, whatever they are feeling is valid, but to find some new joy where they can. Whether that is at home or whether that is with friends online/social media. Try to find a place where you do not have to feel like you are alone.

What recommendations do you have for millennials as it relates to how they can support each other?

Because we (millennials) are so tech-savvy, we can find so many ways to connect with each other without having to leave our homes. I talked earlier about some of the pitfalls of social media but it is not all bad. Social media is a tool. So, if you are unable to be around loved ones or just do not feel safe being in social spaces, you can utilize technology to maybe organize a virtual happy hour. I talk to a lot of folks who are into playing different games and will organize virtual dungeon and dragons games with their friends, or they may take classes online. The internet is a valuable tool/resource. I think we are kind of blessed to be living through a pandemic where we have to be isolated in a time where we have this type of technology. Because if this were maybe 25 years ago, I think it would be a lot more damaging to our mental health when we did not have the ability to connect with folks remotely. 

I encourage especially my millennium clients to utilize technology to their advantage. You can still be alone and safe and wherever you are, but be able to access people outside of your community. This can be very challenging for folks who may be feeling depressed or distressed because oftentimes that can cause, one to withdraw when they are not feeling their best selves. Although, a lot of times when you are not feeling your best self, that is when you need connection. So, reach out.


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tiffany hall

Tiffany Hall, MS, LMFT

Tiffany Hall is a licensed marriage and therapist practicing in and around Philadelphia, PA. Tiffany has nearly 10 years of experience treating individuals, couples, and families. Tiffany is also an EMDR-trained therapist, and specializes in treating trauma and its impact on relationships.

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