Generation Z, Mental Illness, and AR-15s

Like every parent, teen, and American, I am extremely saddened by the cowardly act of violence which led to the death of seventeen high school students this week in South Florida.

I just watched Florida Gov. Scott comment on the high school shooting. He says “People who are mentally ill should not be able to buy guns.” Sounds good when you say it fast but…80% of teens indicate that they suffer from mild to moderate anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. Of that 80%, less than 20% are “diagnosed.” There is no way to identify every teen with a mental illness accurately. The issue is early identification and getting easy and accessible access to care before kids get to high school. 50% of mental illnesses start before the age of 14.

This week’s horrific event was the 18th school shooting in the U.S. this year, and we are only six weeks into the year! Gen Z is experiencing a mental health crisis. It will not get better until we provide more mental health education for parents, even as early as elementary school. Schools and parents must embrace disruptive solutions like virtual, mobile-based technologies that can provide teens 24-7 access to a licensed counselor. The national student-to-counselor ratio for the 2014-15 school year was 480 students for every one counselor. If 80% are experiencing mental health challenges, that means each counselor must manage 385 students with anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide. In many cases, counselors must do this in addition to managing schedules and the school district’s standardized testing requirements.

There are many internal and external reasons mental health issues are rising at alarming rates with Gen Zs and Millennials. Social media must share the blame as their addicting technology has young people comparing everyone’s highlight reels to their own normal and, not as exciting lives. Social media gives every bully unlimited opportunities to inflict emotional pain on whomever they choose from anywhere in the world, any time of the day. There is no escape for their victims. Bullying has moved beyond the physical school parking lot brawls Boomers, and Gen Xers experienced. Now bullying can cause their victims to suffer from FOMO, or “Fear of Missing Out” causing those not as popular to feel unwanted, friendless, and empty.

How about violent media and video games? I was never one to say that playing video games or watching a movie can turn people into killers but my opinion is changing because of the advances in virtual reality. Virtual reality headsets place teens directly in the environment along with their friends from next door or across the world. The weapon of choice in these violent videos games is the AR-15. Ask any teen boy what an AR-15 is, and most can tell you about it in great detail. The games are so realistic they can train kid’s brains into thinking they really are blowing people away with their AR-15s. The average teen plays in this alternative, virtual reality world over 13 hours per week. Combined, teens spend a third of their lives, nearly nine hours per day consuming media. It is no wonder; Gen Z struggles with the concept of “reality.”

As for the gun control debate, I agree there should be some stricter regulations on guns like the AR-15, the weapon used in yesterday’s shooting and so many other mass shootings. In many states, you can legally purchase an assault rifle before you can legally buy a beer. I don’t think that is right. In Florida, we have a three-day waiting period for handgun purchases. Anyone without a felony record or a domestic abuse conviction can walk into a gun store, wait a few minutes to clear a background check, and walk out with an AR-15-style assault rifle, magazines, and ammunition. Under federal law, you also must be 21 to buy a handgun from a firearms dealer. But 18-year-olds can buy semiautomatic rifles in most states including Florida.

I grew up on a farm and owned many guns in my life. I support the second amendment, however; we should ask ourselves if 18-year-olds need assault rifles at a time when teen mental illness is at epidemic proportions. The politicians are already predictably screaming gun control when they need to be using their power to fund early education for parents to identify anxiety, depression, or suicidal tendencies in their children. They also must provide support and funding to get all teens access to counselors through telehealth providers. Yes, it is possible, and it is much more affordable than hiring a few more guidance counselors.


I wrote about “Generation Stress: Mental Illness, a Silent Epidemic” in the Gen Z chapter of my book, Intergenerational Engagement: Understanding the Five Generations in Today’s Economy.

While I would love for you to buy my book, I think it is important for everyone to understand what’s happening with our youngest generation. With that said, I have posted the section on my blog for everyone to access for FREE. Please read it and share it.


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