Elizabeth Solomon, 31, has two master's degrees and carries close to $150,000 in student loan debt. She moved back into her parents' house less than two years after graduation while she looks for work. / Josh T. Reynolds for USA TODAY
Stress levels for Americans have taken a decidedly downward turn across the USA - except for young adults, whose stress is higher than the national norm, says a survey to be released Thursday.
Those ages 18-33 - the Millennial generation - are plenty stressed, and it's not letting up: 39% say their stress has increased in the past year; 52% say stress has kept them awake at night in the past month. And more than any other age group, they report being told by a health care provider that they have either depression or an anxiety disorder.
The online survey of 2,020 U.S. adults 18 and older, conducted in August by Harris Interactive for the American Psychological Association, has been taking the stress pulse of Americans since 2007.
On a 10-point scale, where 1 means "little or no stress" and 10 means "a great deal of stress," the 2012 average is 4.9.
But for Millennials, it's 5.4.
"Younger people do tend to be more stressed than older people do. It may be they are more willing to admit to it. It may be a phase of life. They just don't know where they're going in life," says Mike Hais of Arcadia, Calif., a market researcher and co-author of two books on that generation, including 2011's Millennial Momentum.
But for this group, there is more cause for worry, Hais says.
"Millennials are growing up at a tough time. They were sheltered in many ways, with a lot of high expectations for what they should achieve. Individual failure is difficult to accept when confronted with a sense you're an important person and expected to achieve. Even though, in most instances, it's not their fault - the economy collapsed just as many of them were getting out of college and coming of age - that does lead to a greater sense of stress," he says.
Overall, the survey finds that 20% of Americans report extreme stress, which is an 8, 9 or 10 on the stress scale. Still, the extreme-stress report has declined since 2010, when the number was 24%. Also on the decline are unhealthy coping behaviors. Since 2008, eating to manage stress dropped from 34% to 25% in 2012. And drinking alcohol as a stress reliever dipped from 18% to 13%.
Among other survey findings:
The news on the job front doesn't help either, suggests Matthew Faraci of the non-partisan Generation Opportunity, a Washington, D.C.-based Millennial advocacy group.
January statistics show unemployment among 18- to 29-year-olds at 13% and suggest that as many as 1.7 million young adults aren't even counted as unemployed because they've given up looking.
"For young people, the jobs picture has been persistently bleak," Faraci says.
Elizabeth Solomon of San Francisco currently works as a freelance consultant and is temporarily staying with her mother in Northampton, Mass. Solomon, 31, who was not part of the survey, says her stress is mostly about her long-term financial future. She owes about $150,000 in student loans; last year, she completed two master's degrees, in counseling psychology and organizational psychology.
"You kind of get stuck in this middle ground," she says. "You're highly educated and have a significant amount of student loan debt, and it's hard to find a place in the job market."
Kelly Wiggen, 23, of Champaign, Ill., was among those surveyed. A second-year veterinary graduate student at the University of Illinois, she says she's "definitely stressed." And she says her stress increased in 2012.
"Vet school is pretty intensive. In my undergraduate years, I kept myself very busy, but I would not say I was really stressed. As soon as I got to vet school, the stress skyrocketed. It's pretty much a full-time job," she says.
In addition, she volunteers several hours a week at a wildlife medical clinic and serves as a team leader, which takes up to 15 hours a week, including nights and weekends.
But the stress can become too much and lead to other problems, suggests clinical psychologist Norman Anderson, CEO of the Washington, D.C.,-based psychological association.
"Stress is a risk factor for both depression and anxiety," he says. "We don't have data on the specific causes of depression and anxiety in this sample, but it does make sense scientifically that the Millennials who report higher levels of stress in their lives are also reporting higher levels of depression and anxiety."
The survey finds that 19% of Millennials have been told they have depression, compared with 14% of Generation Xers (ages 34-47); 12% of Baby Boomers (ages 48-66) and 11% of those ages 67 and older. And more Millennials than other generations have been told they have an anxiety disorder: 12% of the youngest, compared with 8% of Gen X, 7% of Boomers and 4% of the oldest.
"There is a greater awareness of mental-health services available, many more medications than there used to be for this, and perhaps more self-awareness in terms of feelings that might be receptive to some sort of treatment," says Lisa Colpe, an epidemiologist at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md. "All those have combined to create a different picture than maybe what we've seen decades ago."
Ronald Kessler of Harvard Medical School in Boston, who has studied the prevalence of mental disorders in the USA, says it is difficult to know whether young people are more troubled today, because few surveys in the past asked the questions to provide a valid long-term look at depression and anxiety disorders.
"There is not a lot of evidence of true prevalence having gone up," he says. "There doesn't seem to be a great deal of evidence to suggest rates have changed dramatically over time. When we do those retrospective kind of things, it looks like younger people are in worse shape, but unfortunately, we just don't know."
Kessler says young people do have higher rates of anxiety and depression, but rates go down in middle age and then rise again in the late 70s. And a new generation of doctors is more willing to discuss mental health, he says. "Anybody who has anxiety or depression today would be more likely to be told they have it than if they went to a doctor 20 years ago."
To cope with stress, Millennials are more likely to report sedentary behaviors, such as eating (36%) or playing video games or surfing the Internet (41%), the survey finds. But the most common coping mechanism is listening to music, cited by 59% of young adults; 51% exercise or walk, about the same as the national average (52%).
"They also showed the highest level (compared with other generations) of spending time with friends and family as a way of coping with stress, which is very good," says Anderson. Forty-six percent cited that, compared with 35%-38% of the other groups and a national average of 39%.
Software programmer Scott Treadwell, 24, of Seattle says his stress level is "very low." He had a job before graduating college, as did many of his friends, who also moved from Michigan to the West Coast, so he has plenty of social support.
"Work is enjoyable, so because of that, I don't feel stress. I get to work on what I like," says Treadwell, who was not part of the survey. "For relaxing, I usually like working out, going to the weight room and running, and playing video games. I am more active and have more opportunities out here to ski or snowboard or hike."
Wiggen says she runs five days a week with her dog, Talia.
"I get up little earlier," she says. "It's a quick run, but it's something."
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