Muir Wood Teen

Existential Angst

Some of the many fears that young people face today appear to be apocalyptic. The global climate crisis is frequently perceived as an existential threat to life on earth as we know it. This perception has caused “eco-anxiety” among many Americans, contributing to the general anxiety epidemic plaguing so many young people today.  

“Watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations, may be an additional source of stress,” warned a report by the American Psychological Association on “mental health and our changing climate” in 2017.  “Direct experience with and future unknown effects of climate change can cause children to exhibit symptoms of PTSD, such as phobic behavior, panic, nightmares, and anxiety. 

Many young people are prone to developing a variety of mental health issues because they fear losing control over an unknown future. Increasingly, this kind of existential doom and gloom is no longer offset by religious faith. The current generation of young Americans dubbed Gen Z or “iGen” is “less religious and less spiritual, publicly and privately, and strikingly different from previous generations when they were young. The move away from religion is not longer piecemeal, small, or uncertain; it’s large and definitive,” wrote psychology professor Jean Twenge in her 2017 book iGen. 

Prevalent existential angst and relentless stress caused in part by the inability to unplug from social media and other online platforms have placed Gen Z “at the forefront of the worst mental health crisis in decades, with rates of teen depression and suicide skyrocketing since 2011,” Twenge warned in iGen. According to a study published in JAMA Pediatrics, the number of children and teens in the United States who visited emergency rooms for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts doubled between 2007 and 2015. 

A recent article in The Atlantic suggested that allegiance to the “holy trinity of American traditionalism,” the nuclear family, religious fealty, and national pride, is in precipitous decline. It has not been replaced with a new credo of purpose, leading many young people to mitigate their existential dread with drugs and alcohol.