One young adult in every five has sought mental health treatment in the past year, as New Zealand's first online generation struggles to get a start in a world of insecure work and housing.

A study that has followed a group of young people born in Wellington in 1988-89 has found that 19 per cent of them "thought about or attempted suicide" in the year before they were last interviewed in 2014-15, aged 26.

And 22 per cent of them "sought help for a mental health problem" in the past year.

Auckland psychologist Dr Joe Guse said the astounding figures revealed the pressures that the "millennial" generation is living under from social media, technological disruption, unaffordable housing and even climate change.

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"It robs a lot of joy out of everyday moments if I'm worried about what's going to happen two years from now," he said.

"It does feel like people are more pressured now, living with that sense of urgency, that sense of restlessness and impending doom."

But Mental Health Foundation head Shaun Robinson welcomes the finding that more than one in five are seeking help.

"I don't think it necessarily says there is a crisis amongst young people. In some respects it's encouraging that they are seeking support," he said.

"You wouldn't expect to live your life and not have a time of some level of physical unwellness, and it's the same with mental health."

Shaun Robinson:
Shaun Robinson: "In some respects it's encouraging that they are seeking support." Photo / File

The figures come from the "Competent Learners" study by the NZ Council for Educational Research, which began by following 307 children from preschool into formal schooling to assess whether a good preschool helped their later learning.

The sample was later expanded to 523 children. Some have been lost along the way, leaving 323 in the final group at age 26.

In some ways this "millennial" cohort is still very similar to "Generation X", who were born in the 15 years before them.

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A fifth (21 per cent) were overseas at 26 - exactly the same as in the famous Dunedin cohort, born in 1972-73, at the same age.

A quarter (24 per cent) of the Dunedin cohort at 26 had experienced an anxiety disorder in the past year and 16.5 per cent had experienced depression - similar to the 28 per cent of Competent Learners who felt anxious, and 18 per cent who felt "sad for no reason", "quite often" or "lots of times" in the past year.

Fifteen per cent of the Dunedin cohort had engaged in "self-harmful behaviours such as self-battery and self-biting" in the past year at age 26 in 1998-99. The suicide rate for every 100,000 people aged 15-24 has dropped from 26 in 1998 to 17 in 2016, the latest year in Ministry of Health data.

Despite the high numbers of Competent Learners who "thought about or attempted suicide", 74 per cent of this newest cohort feel happy or very happy with their lives.

Robinson does not see this as a contradiction.

"Times of mental health challenges are a normal part of human experience," he said.

However in other ways the millennial 26-year-olds really are different - most obviously by living much of their lives online. A massive 79 per cent of the women and 56 per cent of men are social-networking; 7 per cent of women and 35 per cent of men are playing games online.

"Dating is different," Guse said. "If you think about things that didn't exist even 10 years ago - Uber, Tinder, Snapchat, sexting."

Psychologist Dr Joe Guse sees the Millennials as a sleep-deprived generation. Photo / Supplied
Psychologist Dr Joe Guse sees the Millennials as a sleep-deprived generation. Photo / Supplied

He sees it as a sleep-deprived generation, due to taking phones to bed.

"If you don't get that seven hours, your brain could have a hard time focusing and concentrating, it hasn't rebooted itself," he said. "Over time it would really start to weigh on someone's irritability, their sense of hope."

Financially, 58 per cent of Competent Learners are still paying off student loans. Only 20 per cent have no debts.

Jobs, even whole occupations, are precarious. The Competent Learners have had a median of 4.5 jobs since they were 20, and 24 per cent have had times being unemployed for at least six months.

Nineteen per cent still live with their parents at 26, only 40 per cent live with a partner and only 11 per cent are homeowners.

Only 9 per cent of the men and 21 per cent of the women have children, down from 19 per cent of men and 26 per cent of women at the same age in the Dunedin cohort.

That matters, because 56 per cent of the mothers, but only 27 per cent of the other young women, are "very happy".

"You can treat symptoms in people, but often what it's all about is finding that sense of purpose, and parenthood gives you that sense of purpose," Guse said.

"If someone is frustrated with the world, maybe they can volunteer, lend their services to someone less fortunate. That can be very powerful.

"When it comes to purpose, it's finding ways they can think about making a difference, feeling that sense of meaning in their life."

Suicide thoughts 'a call for help'

Saskia Ymker:
Saskia Ymker: "Wow, I can do anything, but where on Earth can I start?" Photo / Supplied

Saskia Ymker believes suicidal thoughts are not uncommon, nor are they a contradiction to happiness.

"Even during my hardest times, I wasn't always unhappy," she says. "There were aspects of my life that I felt happy about, and yet there were other ways in which I felt utterly useless and like a failure."

Ymker, 28, is doing a masters in biomedical science at Victoria University in Wellington. She has also just finished training as a peer support worker for Piki, a new free mental health service for Wellingtonians aged 18 to 25.

Like many young people, she feels huge pressures in her life.

"There is just so much pressure on us - our lifestyle, our culture, even our opportunities," she says.

"We really can do anything we want. But it's also huge and overwhelming - wow, I can do anything, but where on Earth do I start?

"We know that as an individual we have a lot of power. It makes you feel responsible for everything, like the environment.

"We have been taught to think about all the things that might go wrong, in the hope that we might safeguard the process better.

"But actually there is always a certain amount of risk - you just have to give it a go and trust that it will work out."

In her lowest times, Ymker felt stuck. She saw other people feel low, isolated or overwhelmed and come out of it, but she couldn't shake it off as quickly.

"In my experience suicidal thoughts are often a way to communicate a sense of hopelessness, or people not being sure how to find a way out of their circumstances," she says.

"I see it as a way of asking for help. It's a way of saying, 'I'm not okay, what's happening is not okay, I need to do something about this but I don't know what to do about it, or I can't get out of it on my own.'"

Ymker finally shared her struggles in her university lab group, and was amazed to find that she was not alone.

"It was like this dam that suddenly opened up and everyone was just sharing, everyone from my peers to my superiors were talking about their versions of these experiences and how it's affected them," she says.

"When you hear stories you can look around at the other people and see how different people cope with these pressures, and you can start to create a bit of movement in your own life about how you deal with them."

Through Piki, she hopes to help others to break through too.

"I'm not saying this is 100 per cent the solution," she says.

"On the other hand I think it's an incredibly important first step. Just the amount of release that you can get from sharing experiences, and feeling like you are not alone, is huge."

Competent Learners: key findings 1993-2019

• High quality early childhood education has positive long-lasting effects.

• The importance of supporting students to develop communication and social skills, curiosity, perseverance, and individual responsibility for their academic achievement.

• Early low achievement can improve over time.

• Risk factors from childhood for achieving a satisfactory pathway from school.

- Dr Cathy Wylie, NZ Council for Educational Research

Where to get help

• Telehealth Service: Free text 1737

• Lifeline: 0800 543 354

• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

• Youthline: 0800 376 633

• Kidsline: 0800 543 754

• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm-11pm)

• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757

• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.