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How to design mental health tools for Gen Z

Gen Z will soon account for ⅓ of the workforce

By 2030, Generation Z (generally considered to be born between 1995 and 20121) will account for 30% of the workforce.2 As the most racially diverse generation in US history, this group of young adults are tech savvy, inclusive, and educated, having grown up alongside the advent of social media and social justice movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.1,3 While this all sounds like good news for employers, the reality is that despite their impressive resumes, many are struggling with their mental health.

Accommodating Gen Z in the $238 billion mental health industry

Only about half (45%) of Gen Z classify their mental health as good or very good, and they’ve been identified as the loneliest generation.4,5 This has consequences in the workplace: as of 2021, 81% of Gen Zs report having previously left a job for mental health reasons.6

While many workplaces offer resources for mental health, these can often fall short of Gen Z employees’ needs. For example, many prefer turning to social media or digital tools for mental health and favor in-person therapy to telehealth.

The US expenditure for mental health services was an immense ~$238 billion USD in 2020,8 and mental health apps have already begun to permeate the industry. There are, however, significant opportunities for improvement in shaping these services to meet the unique Gen Z needs and preferences. 

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GenZ health tools

A survey from the American Psychological Association revealed that Gen Zs report having the lowest mental health and are more stressed about news events.

Gaps in the Market

  • Impersonal and low diversity of tools: Many young adults regard online mental health tools and services as impersonal and insufficiently diverse — both in the racial and ethnic makeup of available practitioners and the scope of issues they’re designed to address.7
  • Many tools require limited interaction: Many tools on the market are text-based and require limited interaction, which is at odds with Gen Z’s preference for more engaging platforms like apps and videos.9
  • Services lack social components: Leading tools, while employing self-directed learning options (a Gen Z favorite),9 often don’t include social aspects like a homepage newsfeed, a sharing feature, or a like button, preventing them from fully reaching their target group.
  • Mental health issues are often siloed: Many mental health resources tend to silo medical issues and general concerns into different buckets, such as depression or anxiety and sleep or social problems, rather than looking at them as a spectrum or in conjunction with one another.10 Siloing mental health issues most affects young people, since undiagnosed or ignored conditions have many more years to fester.11

Integrating multiple facets of life into care also plays into the diversity component that Gen Z appreciates.12 Through our work, we’ve observed that mental health tools are most successful when they allow for an overlap of concerns, rather than compartmentalization.

Behavioral Insights for Online Tools 

Insight #1: The Stepped Care Model

Unlike older generations, Gen Z is more aware of their mental health struggles and more likely to seek help.13 Unfortunately, many tend to turn to emergency services or social media because they perceive a lack of attainable and sustainable resources available to them.7 

Mental health tools can tackle this with a Stepped Care approach. This model can reduce barriers to accessing care while providing users with more tailored recommendations based on their needs and preferences. The patient escalates or deescalates in treatment options depending on their needs.14 A Stepped Care approach empowers people to make use of tools and skills outside of crisis services. By making resources of less intensity more accessible, it empowers them to learn about coping mechanisms so that if they do find themselves in crisis later on, they are better equipped to take care of themselves. 

In keeping these coping mechanisms handy, individuals will also be able to notice if their mental health symptoms are getting worse and seek care earlier in the process, instead of letting it spiral out of control. This is especially important given emergency rooms have been flooded with young people needing care, and some hospitals in the US have even gone as far as to declare a state of emergency.15

How to tailor it to Gen Z

We know that a) Stepped Care is an effective treatment model and b) Gen Z is incredibly well-educated and well-informed on their needs. A mental health tool can use these insights to create a Gen Z-centered program that offers varying levels of care.

What do these insights look like in application? For example, when creating an account on a mental health app, users could be directed to take an assessment that identifies their current mental health needs. Given Gen Z’s openness and self-awareness toward mental health compared to older generations,16 they would be more likely to answer honestly, leading to an efficient pathway to appropriate treatment.

A digitized stepped care approach could take one of two forms. First, it might look like taking advantage exclusively of virtual care without the involvement of any doctors (think Wellness Together, Kids Help Phone, or suicide hotlines). A second route would look like the integration of both virtual services and in-person care. Thus, after completing the assessment, users would be placed into Step 1, which may be limited to virtual resources like general information about their target issues (i.e. resources on how to handle anxiety) or, in addition, a portal to create an appointment with a doctor.

By capitalizing on Gen Z’s ease with electronics and finding information online, a Stepped Care setup would help ensure they receive the level of treatment that they need and reduce their reliance on emergency or one-off resources.

Insight #2: Self-directed learning using videos

Differing from previous generations, Gen Z thrives on self-directed, technology-based learning.17 In a survey from 2018, 59% of Gen Z respondents said their favorite learning method was YouTube.18 This is partially due to their having grown up in a continuously distracting multimedia world and because independent learning provides them with the freedom to learn wherever and whenever it’s convenient.19, 20

Creating this type of in-app experience allows Gen Z users to obtain information at their own pace — which is usually quickly, given how their familiarity to high speed Internet and modern technology.21 It’s also in line with the Gen Z preference for learning via interactive apps and videos over traditional media.9

How to tailor it to Gen Z

A self-directed learning approach for a mental well-being app could let learners choose a course based on their goals and take a lesson every day for the duration of the program. In using video and/or audio content, the tool will create a dynamic environment that will effectively engage Gen Z and capitalize on their preferred learning styles.9 In employing this approach, users become independent and can tweak their learning sessions according to their attention span or mood.

Bonus Insight

In addition to capitalizing on Gen Z’s preferences for self-directed learning, providing courses for a spectrum of mental health needs shows users that the organization shares Gen Z’s value of diversity. More than other generations, this group cares about diversity in all aspects — from race and gender to health concerns.1 By creating content for an array of issues, organizations can help foster a feeling of belonging, which will boost retention among the target audience. Since this generation has reported a higher level of loneliness, which is a key predictor of serious concerns like depression and suicidal ideation, fostering connections could significantly benefit Gen Z.15

Stepped Care and Self-Directed Audiovisual Learning

In the not-too-distant future, Generation Z - who already make up more than a third of the global population - will make up one third of the workforce.2 There are significant opportunities for mental health apps to support this group of young people, not only in their transition to work life, but also to adulthood and beyond. By understanding their needs and the deficiencies in current services, mental health organizations can ensure that they are able to access the most effective resources.

The Decision Lab is a behavioral consultancy that uses science to foster wellness through science and design. We work with some of the most innovative health & wellbeing organizations in the world to create social change and ensure all generations have access to care. If you'd like to tackle this together, contact us.


  1. Gomez, K., Mawhinney, T., & Betts, K. (n.d.). Welcome to Gen Z (Network of Executive Women). Deloitte.
  2. Jancourt, M. (2020). Gen Z and the workplace: Can we all get along? Corporate Real Estate Journal, 10(1). https://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/hsp/crej/2020/00000010/00000001/art00004
  3. Schroth, H. (2019). Are You Ready for Gen Z in the Workplace? California Management Review, 61(3), 5–18. https://doi.org/10.1177/0008125619841006
  4. Bethune, S. (2019, January). Gen Z more likely to report mental health concerns. Monitor on Psychology, 50(2), 20.
  5. New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America. (2018, May 1). Cigna. https://www.multivu.com/players/English/8294451-cigna-us-loneliness-survey/
  6. Greenwood, K., & Anas, J. (2021, October 4). It’s a New Era for Mental Health at Work. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/10/its-a-new-era-for-mental-health-at-work
  7. Coe, E., Cordina, J., Enomoto, K., Jacobson, R., Mei, S., & Seshan, N. (2022, January 14). Addressing Gen Z mental health challenges. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/addressing-the-unprecedented-behavioral-health-challenges-facing-generation-z
  8. Total mental health services expenditure U.S. 1986-2020. (n.d.). Statista. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/252393/total-us-expenditure-for-mental-health-services/
  9. Szymkowiak, A., Melović, B., Dabić, M., Jeganathan, K., & Kundi, G. S. (2021a). Information technology and Gen Z: The role of teachers, the internet, and technology in the education of young people. Technology in Society, 65, 101565. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techsoc.2021.101565
  10. Brodey, D. (2022, April 19). The Business of Mental Health Care Now: Can Corporations Solve the Problem? Psycom. https://www.psycom.net/mental-health-care-solutions
  11. Malla, A., Shah, J., Iyer, S., Boksa, P., Joober, R., Andersson, N., Lal, S., & Fuhrer, R. (2018). Youth Mental Health Should Be a Top Priority for Health Care in Canada. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 63(4), 216–222. https://doi.org/10.1177/0706743718758968
  12. Pichler, S., Kohli, C., & Granitz, N. (2021). DITTO for Gen Z: A framework for leveraging the uniqueness of the new generation. Business Horizons, 64(5), 599–610. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bushor.2021.02.021
  13. Generation Z Most Likely to Have Poor Mental Health. (2019, January 15). Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/generation-z-most-likely-to-have-poor-mental-health/
  14. Stepped Care. (n.d.). Mental Health Matters. Retrieved June 8, 2022, from https://www.mhm.org.uk/Pages/FAQs/Category/stepped-care
  15. Richtel, M. (2021, December 7). Surgeon General Warns of Youth Mental Health Crisis. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/07/science/pandemic-adolescents-depression-anxiety.html
  16. Cuncic, A., & Lockhart, A.-L. T. (2021, March 25). Why Gen Z Is More Open to Talking About Their Mental Health. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/why-gen-z-is-more-open-to-talking-about-their-mental-health-5104730
  17. Billings, D. M., Kowalski, K., Shatto, B., & Erwin, K. (2016). Moving on From Millennials: Preparing for Generation Z. The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing, 47(6), 253–254. https://doi.org/10.3928/00220124-20160518-05
  18. What do Generation Z and millennials expect from technology in education? (2018, May 24). Pearson. https://www.pearson.com/ped-blogs/blogs/2018/05/generation-z-millennials-expect-technology-education.html
  19. Poláková, P., & Klímová, B. (2019). Mobile Technology and Generation Z in the English Language Classroom—A Preliminary Study. Education Sciences, 9(3), 203. https://doi.org/10.3390/educsci9030203
  20. Wu, T.-T., Huang, Y.-M., Shadiev, R., Lin, L., & Starčič, A. I. (2018). Innovative Technologies and Learning: First International Conference, ICITL 2018, Portoroz, Slovenia, August 27–30, 2018, Proceedings. Springer.
  21. Fernández-Cruz, F.-J., & Fernández-Díaz, M.-J. (2016). Generation Z’s teachers and their digital skills. Comunicar, 24(46), 97–105.https://doi.org/10.3916/C46-2016-10

About the Authors

Lindsey Turk's portrait

Lindsey Turk

Lindsey Turk is a Summer Content Associate at The Decision Lab. She holds a Master of Professional Studies in Applied Economics and Management from Cornell University and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Boston University. Over the last few years, she’s gained experience in customer service, consulting, research, and communications in various industries. Before The Decision Lab, Lindsey served as a consultant to the US Department of State, working with its international HIV initiative, PEPFAR. Through Cornell, she also worked with a health food company in Kenya to improve access to clean foods and cites this opportunity as what cemented her interest in using behavioral science for good.

Marielle Montenegro's portrait

Marielle Montenegro

Marielle Montenegro has a background in behavioural neuroscience from McGill University. Her prior experience ranges from projects in behavioural finance to health, where she was responsible for designing programs that unlocked barriers to medication adherence, curating behaviourally guided content for financial planners and informing policy to improve access to and perceptions of mental health services in University. Prior to working at The Decision Lab, she was based in Johannesburg working as a Behavioural Policy Analyst, where she designed impact measurement framework to assess the effectiveness of telecommunication policies on access to communications in rural communicates.

Sekoul Krastev's portrait

Dr. Sekoul Krastev

Sekoul is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. A decision scientist with a PhD in Decision Neuroscience from McGill University, Sekoul's work has been featured in peer-reviewed journals and has been presented at conferences around the world. Sekoul previously advised management on innovation and engagement strategy at The Boston Consulting Group as well as on online media strategy at Google. He has a deep interest in the applications of behavioral science to new technology and has published on these topics in places such as the Huffington Post and Strategy & Business.

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