Baby boomers. Generation X. Millennials. And then came Gen Z—today's adolescents and young adults.
We think of these designations as being based on the time period a group of people are born into, but just as importantly, it is the world of experiences they collectively share that shape a social generation. Major historical events, technological innovations, trends, music and more serve as common bonds that connect groups of people and often confer on them a shared persona.
Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2012, is not only the first generation to live their entire lives with mobile devices and social media, they’re also growing up with school lockdown drills, increasingly frequent reports of mass shootings and a ballooning mental health crisis. It’s a time unlike any we’ve known, and they’re coming of age right in the thick of it.
Adelphi University’s faculty from the Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology, experts with deep clinical expertise and an avid desire to expand our understanding of mental health, are exploring topics that can shed new light on the concerns of this generation.
Mental Health and Suicidality
A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021, uncovered significant increases in the percentage of youth who seriously considered suicide, made a suicide plan and attempted suicide. It also showed that the number of high school girls reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness rose to 57 percent from 36 percent 10 years earlier, and that 29 percent of boys reported those feelings.
With the issue of suicidality weighing heavily on Gen Z, three Derner faculty members sought to understand an understudied aspect of the mental health of adolescents: the connection between interpersonal dependency—a personality trait characterized by the tendency to rely on others for nurturance, support and guidance—and suicidal thoughts and actions.
Associate Professor Kate Szymanski, PhD; Associate Professor Carolyn Springer, PhD; University Professor Robert Bornstein, PhD; and former student Vanessa Hartmann, MA ’20, PhD ’23, undertook groundbreaking research on this topic that was recently published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease—“Suicidality and Implicit Dependency in Child and Adolescent Inpatients With Histories of Trauma: Moderating Effects of Gender.”
“Although the relationship between interpersonal dependency and suicidal behavior in adult psychiatric patients is well documented, few studies explore this relationship in children and adolescents, and those that do have used self-report dependency measures, which have the potential to skew findings,” said lead author, Dr. Szymanski. “This is the first investigation to examine this relationship using a performance-based dependency test and to consider interpersonal dependency as a character trait in its relationship to suicidal behavior, independent of depression.”
Their research reviewed the closed patient charts of 79 randomly selected child and adolescent inpatients from a large urban children’s psychiatric hospital, with participants ranging from 7 to 17 years of age. The team found that trauma figured prominently in the experiences of the vast majority of the patients included in the study—94 percent reported at least one traumatic event.
This finding was not surprising. Dr. Bornstein’s earlier research has shown that experiencing early trauma can lead one to see themselves as vulnerable and ineffective, to develop maladaptive coping and defense strategies, and to engage in unstable relationships (Bornstein, 2005). People, and particularly children, may develop interpersonal dependency because they do not feel equipped to manage their own security and stability.
In analyzing the patient charts, at first there was no association between interpersonal dependency and history of suicidal ideation or suicide attempts. But when the sample was stratified by gender and controlled for age, significant relationships were found between suicidality and dependency, with contrasting patterns emerging for girls and boys.
“For girls, high dependency scores were positively correlated with suicidal ideation but not with attempts, while for boys it was quite different—those with high dependency scores were negatively correlated with suicidal attempts but not with ideation,” said Dr. Szymanski.
She explains that when girls have histories of trauma, interpersonal dependency may signal that their sense of agency has been diminished and that they’ve developed a self-perception that they are helpless and unable to cope on their own. As a result, girls might find themselves less able to regulate overwhelming negative affect, which could lead to an increase in suicidal thoughts as a way of coping with trauma.
Another possible explanation may rest on social and cultural factors. “Traditionally, girls are socialized to rely more on others and to prioritize social relationships—research shows that they tend to rate themselves as more dependent on self-report measures than their results using implicit dependency measures would suggest,” she said. “Girls with interpersonal trauma histories may also feel that they are less capable of connecting with others, which denies them much-needed support.”
The Derner research team says it was an unexpected finding that, in boys, high scores for dependency were negatively correlated with suicidal attempts—making it possible that interpersonal dependency may be a protective factor against suicide attempts for males. According to Dr. Szymanski, it is possible that boys with a history of trauma express their dependency needs by relying on others when overwhelmed by negative affect, and that this adaptive coping method actually fosters their sense of agency. “Such a sense of control might allow boys to better regulate negative emotions,” said Dr. Szymanski. “It is also possible that, since culturally boys are socialized to deny their dependency needs, when they do make bids for attention, their behavior might be interpreted more as a cause for concern than similar behavior in girls, yielding them more care and support and, in turn, protecting them from suicidal attempts.”
The findings of this study have potential to positively impact how clinicians assess and treat children and adolescents who have experienced trauma and to offer them a better understanding of how interpersonal dependency interplays with gender, allowing for more effective care for at-risk patients.
More so than any other generation, members of Gen Z have lived their entire lives in the shadow of gun violence. According to a survey of 1,000 Americans ages 13 through 25 published by the organization Project Unloaded, 51 percent of young people rank gun violence as a top problem facing their generation, with half reporting that they think about mass shootings at least weekly and another 48% saying they think about school shootings often. Research by Everytown for Gun Safety shows that, since 2013, there were at least 1,137 incidents of gunfire on school grounds, resulting in 380 deaths and 814 injuries nationally.
In the wake of the May 2022 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in which a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers, the American Psychological Association’s Division 39 (the Society for Psychoanalysis and Psychoanalytic Psychology), Section II (Childhood and Adolescence), called for a conversation series which they published in the Journal of Infant, Child, and Adolescent Psychotherapy under the title of “What’s Going On Around Here? Psychodynamic Thinking on Guns, Violence, and Youth in America: Aggression, Depression, and Destruction.” The discussion drew together experts with clinical and professional experience working with young people who are considered at risk for perpetrating violence, as well as those who have been victims of violence. Larry Rosenberg, PhD, Derner School adjunct faculty member, was one of the participants in this enlightening meeting of the minds.
The conversation’s primary focus was how mental health professionals can better understand individuals who threaten and commit acts of violence, as well as how to assess potential risk in their patients and approach interventions that might prevent the next mass shooting.
Dr. Rosenberg said he views America’s gun violence issue as part and parcel of a larger societal issue—regression and erosion of the fabric of things. “For many of the kids that have committed these premeditated … school shootings, approximately one-third of them or so were categorized as kids who had trauma in their history,” he said. “If we look more closely, I think the same thing is true on the national level. That is, we’re in a state of what I would consider to be a cumulative trauma, or developmental trauma, as a country.”
The experts agreed that it was important not only to stop the actions of shooters, but to understand why they are driven to commit these acts in the first place.
“Where psychoanalysis comes into this is that behavior is viewed as something other than just something that needs to be extinguished, but rather something that needs to be understood,” he said. “[The] behavior you see may not always be a concrete representation of what underlies it.
For a child or for an adult, for that matter, anger can be a function of somebody who really is ticked off about something; it could result from a sense of rejection, abandonment or loss. While those things are not just underlying issues for kids who are shooters, they often actually are precipitating issues for kids who are shooters.”
Even as mental health professionals ponder how they might save lives by providing effective psychological care to would-be shooters, the toll of fear and anxiety has extended to the American public and, very pointedly, to the adolescents and young adults who make up Gen Z.
Dr. Rosenberg says there’s no doubt that both the threat of violence and violence witnessed has an effect on kids who are not committing these acts—lockdown drills, false alarms, being told why they need to go through these exercises and why there’s a need for police in the school are all stressors.
“It’s hard to measure what the effect on kids actually is. Some kids will talk about it with parents or therapists; for others, I suspect it’s a bit like other dangers or worries that we compartmentalize in order to help us function,” he added. “Even so, things that are compartmentalized remain as unconscious influences on how we think, view the world and behave. Defenses and attempts at normalization allow for adaptation to stressful circumstances, but not without some measure of cost.”