By the time a millennial lies down on a therapist’s couch, she’s already been analyzed to death.
If America can’t seem to decide what to make of the generation, neither can mental health professionals. There’s widening disagreement over whether millennials — those aged 18 to 34 — are fundamentally different from the generations that preceded them and, if so, how to translate that to therapy.
Some self-described “millennial therapists,” mostly millennials themselves, now argue that the generation needs a tailored approach. And they say they’re better able to relate to young adults’ concerns others might dismiss.
Others dispute the need for special treatment, saying good care meets people where they are, whatever their generation. But if the profession can’t decide how best to serve millennials, some wonder, will they get the care they need?
And even professionals who don’t believe millennials have unique needs agree that they see significant anxiety and depression among their ranks.
Satya Doyle Byock, a licensed psychotherapist in Portland, Ore., only treats millennial clients, calling them “totally neglected.” Young people today are an “underserved population in my mind,” said Byock, “with some pretty epidemic mental health needs that aren’t being addressed.”
The rise of the ‘millennial therapist’
Liz Higgins, a 28-year-old “millennial therapist” in Dallas, is used to her title sparking interest — and an occasional snicker. Recently, after moving into a new office building, she overheard some neighbors talking.
“She said she’s a millennial therapist,” Higgins, a licensed marriage and family therapist associate who treats mostly millennials, recalls hearing. “What does that even mean?’”
It’s hard to say how many of the approximately 500,000 mental health professionals in the U.S. specialize in treating millennials — or, for that matter, how many now visit millennial therapists. But many therapists say millennials are increasingly requesting referrals to those with experience treating their generation.
And there’s evidence of a need for more help: millennials report above average stress levels, according to the American Psychological Association, and government data indicate they visit emotional and behavioral therapists at a slightly higher rate than others.
Millennial therapists, who likely make up a tiny minority in their field, say the term is less a technical designation than a signifier of their perspective. Licensed mental health counselor Jennifer Behnke, a marriage and family therapist, says it describes a “fresh” take on the practice, with updated viewpoints on topics including marriage and relationships.
Being a millennial helps, some therapists say. Higgins says it lets her access an “extra depth of knowledge” that shapes the rapport at the heart of all therapeutic relationships.
That, she and others say, means a shared understanding of the ways economic uncertainty, student debt, helicopter parents and the intense interactions and competitions that take place on social media have affected the generation.
Millennials are now “wondering ‘Who am I in this world that is constantly changing? There isn’t a predictable path forward for me to fall into,’” said Higgins. While previous generations — people now in their 40s, 50s and 60s — often repressed those uncertainties until later in life, she said, today’s millennials address them earlier and more openly.
Another difference some millennial therapists employ: shorter engagements between doctor and patient. While therapist-patient relationships can last years, Behnke tailors hers to three to six months, focusing on tips and insights that can be used immediately.
“Millennials would prefer short-term therapy,” said Behnke. “I don’t think it’s reasonable financially — or even time-wise — for millennials to go through a six-year process of psychoanalysis.”
Ashli Haggard, a 23-year-old who works for a Washington, D.C. nonprofit, said she’s thought about generational differences when looking for a therapist in the past.
“I very much wanted a therapist that was old enough to be my grandmother, because I trusted the wisdom,” she said. “But I also didn’t want somebody who leaned heavily into the millennial stereotypes and treated me like I was an entitled brat.”
Her current therapist, with whom Haggard has discussed subjects including her mostly virtual relationship with her West Coast boss — Haggard says she struggles to read tone in communications that aren’t face-to-face — is in her 60s.
“I think it’s possible to communicate between generations,” Haggard said. “But I think sometimes it doesn’t work.”